Fritz Wagner was a German painter who worked mostly with genre painting, particularly notable for his depictions of the bourgeoisie in leisure activities. Despite his narrative work being his most famous, he also painted landscapes and finely detailed still-lifes. While not extremely renowned during his lifetime, his work has been recently reevaluated, and his most famous artworks were sold by auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's.
Fritz Wagner was born in the city of Munich in 1896. His father was Josef Wagner-Höhenberg, an artist who also focused on genre scenes. Wagner-Höhenberg's oeuvre is a gateway to understanding his son's work: his themes usually were related to working or public spaces.
He sought to capture these interactions in a light and humorous way. While we know little about Josef Wagner, he was responsible for Fritz's early education, and it's notable how not only their manner but their choice of subjects are similar.
The artist studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Munich. During the late 19th century, the institution became very famous and had full support from monarch Ludwig I. From 1850 to 1914, Munich was known as one of the world's most exciting cultural capitals. Compared to other artistic destinations, such as Berlin and Dusseldorf, the public financing of culture was much larger in the Bavaria town.
Similar to Dusseldorf's developments, which also proposed new ideas and perspectives on German art as well as becoming a renowned institution, the Nazarene painters were fundamental to the significant pedagogical changes that entailed. Peter von Cornelius and Julius Schnorr Von Carolsfeld, along with Von Piloty Karl Theodor, acted at the institution and ensured the necessary alterations on their classes.
After the Exposition Universelle of 1867, The Dusseldorf School lost its prominence, and The Munich School was acknowledged internationally as the forefront of German art. Many of their students became integrated into the art market, and a significant percentage of them made a good income through their commissions.
The Munich School was characterized by Naturalism, valuing a detailed manner and a realist treatment. They worked mostly with historical painting, landscape, and portraits. Other than Paris, Munich became the aspired place to become an artist. Later, many Expressionists such as Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Ernst Opper also graduated there.
In the years after finishing his education, Fritz Wagner took a conventional choice for upcoming artists: the European painter traveled throughout Europe, practicing his craft and visiting exhibitions. While in Milan, he studied in the Accademia di Brera. The Accademia di Brera was founded by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa in 1776 and held Enlightenment principles. It is a multidisciplinary school and later became funded by the Italian state.
While at the Accademia, Fritz Wagner had the necessary complementary education to refine his technique and manner. There, he became inspired by artists such as Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier and Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel. Through his contact with their works, the painter completely embraced his genre scenes while giving them a historical narrative and military setting.
Fritz's medium of choice was oil painting, with no documentation of his production with other methods, other than preparatory drawings and sketches. While best known for his genre scenes, he also painted many portraits. His oil on canvas, Tasting the Wine, depicting a cardinal with a glass in his hand, is an example of his usual humor and light mood. Another example of his religious theme work is the Reading Cardinal painting, which portrays a similar figure to the other picture.
In the next decades, we can see the German painter finding his style. Fritz Wagner's work is characterized by a laid back atmosphere and a non-serious tone, in which his figures seem to be enjoying their leisure time and having joyful conversations. Based on the Dutch Golden Age's influence, which was closely studied by most German lecturers and Academicians from the period, the artist began to use historical vestment in his characters. This choice was a strategy to give a more decorative flair to the pieces.
The subtle story embedded in his pictures was usually told through the difference in the figures. In an artwork like The Conversation, the viewer is placed inside what seems to be casual dialogue. The warm palette in the composition gives the feeling of a comfortable environment.
The figures seem to be wearing clothes that are correspondent or inspired by 16th-century attire. While the three men on the left side seem concerned with their serious expressions, the character on the far right is smiling and appears to be presenting good news, contrasting from his peers' overall mood. The furniture is rendered in yellow and brownish tones, with green areas that give it a more dynamic composition.
Not only in the piece The Conversation, but also in paintings such as A Musical Interlude, The Contract, Two Gentlemen Discussing Business, and A Literary Gathering, it's possible to perceive that Wagner dedicated himself to carefully portrays the figures and detailed interiors. This group of pictures shows a common point of view that the artist employs: a diagonal perspective that gives us a general framing of the ambient.
The rooms are packed with objects that are either inspired by the decorative fashion of this period and many elements that serve as references to older times. Objects like miniature ships, expensive furniture, musical instruments, books, and easels all coexist as documentation of his patrons' wealth.
His work became known through the historical citations, as he acted as a witness of the commercial transactions, business meetings, and cultural activities of a precedent time. A primer example is A Dutch Seventeenth-Century Interior with Gentlemen Discussing a Naval Chart Around a Table, which turns his inspiration into the work theme. His decorative eye attracted many clients. They weren't directly portrayed, but they related to the signs of cultural knowledge and upper-class distinction.
Another factor that is constant throughout his compositions is the inclusion of windows. This characteristic might point to the difference in his images to the Dutch paintings that inspired him so much. The window's figure in Fritz Wagner's oeuvre acts as a connection between his outlook on the past and modern life happening on the outside. They also add depth to the compositions and make the figures' stage-like organization have a more intuitive and inspirational feeling.
There is little information on the personal life of Fritz Wagner other than him being commercially successful and his association with other painters of his time. Among his most famous remarkable work is An Interesting Story, in which the figurative artist displays a masterful use of lighting to create a dramatic effect on the comic image. He was part of the Association of Fine Artists from the German Reich.
Fritz Wagner died in Munich in 1939.