Women’s power in the Enlightenment

30. June 2019

We continue with my next travel contribution. This time to the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, which is of course well known to me as an art historian. But it is only through our journey that I become aware of the significance of the “Baden Louvre” beyond the city of Karlsruhe. Exciting: here you visit one of the few original museum buildings in Germany. Because the master collector Karoline Luise, Margravine of Baden, provided here in the 18th century for a radiance of art that is unparalleled. Who was this extraordinary aristocrat who, as a “wolverine”, was almost penetratingly inquisitive and extremely skilful at buying together a sensational art collection? We got to know her and I think all cultural bloggers have become fans of Karoline Luise. Maria has already explained the Hessian Minerva in her blog post.

Before I come to the Master Collector, I have to say a few words about the Kunsthalle. Have you ever wondered what a Musentempel should look like? Just like this impressive architecture, which was opened in 1846 in an idea for a new building designed by Heinrich Hübsch. One of the earliest German museum buildings, by the way. One can enjoy various types of unplastered stone, the walls are designed with a sophisticated colour concept and the funnel vault above the staircase celebrated the architectural mastery of those years. A huge painting by Moritz von Schwind makes the claim clear: the opening of the Freiburg Cathedral is a quotation from Goethe’s “Von deutscher Baukunst”. A typeface that describes the artistic genius.

The surroundings of the Botanical Garden are another highlight and next to the main building there is the Orangerie, which houses the Modernist Collection, and the Junge Kunsthalle, which houses the Children’s Museum. There, the museum educator in me gets enthusiastic. But first we concentrated on the special exhibition. But the Hans-Thoma-Kapelle, which was inaugurated for the artist (director from 1899 – 1920) in 1909, is also very appealing to me.

There are already plans for the future. They concern the roofing of the inner courtyard, which can then offer more special exhibition space. I can well imagine that – there are plenty of role models for such successful buildings!

Karoline Luise

But now to the inner life of the Kunsthalle. A central core around which the collection has developed is the Mahlerey Cabinet of Caroline Luise (1723 – 1783), who came to Karlsruhe from the House of Hesse-Darmstadt. And Margrave Karl Friedrich married in 1751. One can already guess what an extraordinary personality she was when one learns that she had already rejected two marriage candidates. One because of proven miserliness, among other things! For Karl Friedrich the educated young woman had had a secret crush since she had once seen him at a courtly event. It took until the arranged marriage became a deep love, however, until the birth of their first son in 1855. From the correspondence of the two we learn tender affection but also that Karoline Luise was asked by her husband for advice. This archival tradition is, by the way, a true treasure which can be seen as the key to the creation of this remarkable collection. The General State Archive Baden Württemberg is thus also an important partner of the special exhibition “The Master Collector Karoline Luise of Baden”.


The light of the Enlightenment also shone on Karlsruhe, where Karoline Luise worked as a popular margravine. How does this manifest itself? This becomes particularly clear in the fact that Karoline Luise insisted on raising her three sons herself! But also beyond that, she was influenced by the idea of perfecting the world through guiding interventions. That’s why – unusual for a woman in the 18th century – she was interested in the natural sciences. And she fears mediocrity! Clearly: her collecting activity is enlightened, if you want to call it that! She is not interested in representative “hams”, she uses art to train her vision. It is no coincidence that she prefers so-called fine painting. Therefore she collects mainly the Dutch of the 17th century and French like Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin from the 18th century. She penetrates the painting techniques, even knows how to perfectly copy an oil painting by Caspar Netscher in pastel.

She was not the only woman who accomplished great things under the flag of enlightenment. Not least her sister-in-law, the great landgravine, was one of them. But also the Marquise du Deffand, who gathered around her in Paris as famous Salonière intellectual greats like Voltaire. Karoline Luise always wanted to know the latest gossip from the Pompadour – but she was also a role model for the promotion of the fine arts!

Mahlerey Cabinet

The master collector collected 205 paintings in just a few years. With an army of specialized art dealers and advisors, she acquired valuable works of art that made her a central figure in 18th-century art history. While strolling through the exhibition, it is noticeable that there are no large formats hanging here. Most of them are still lifes, landscapes, genre paintings. That was definitely mainstream at the time. The fact that Rembrandt’s collection contains a wonderful self-portrait is rather a coincidence. The margravine sold a masterpiece by Anthonis van Dyck (Susanna Fourment and her daughter, 1621) relatively quickly. Too big. Too representative!

Today it hangs in the National Gallery in Washington

At that time she presented everything in only four rooms of her residence. Of course in baroque hanging (or as one likes to say today: in Petersburg hanging). An impression of this is created by the exhibition organizers in one room – otherwise everything is happily hanging loosely and you can look at every masterpiece in peace. 151 paintings are still in the possession of the Kunsthalle today and with the loans from all over the world (Louvre, Uffizi, National Gallery London) the picture of the great collection emerges.

Together with curator Katharine Weiler, we measure the exhibition rooms. As a confessing lover of fine little anecdotes, I got my money’s worth when Weiler tells the story of the purchase of special treasures. It says a lot about the Margravine’s purposeful collecting that after the death of the famous Comte de Vente a courtesy formula is included in her letter of condolence. But also the question whether his collection could be acquired now! What a woman. I could now read my way through the biography of this ”femme savante” for days. Soon the extensive correspondence will be online. I am very curious!