Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach

Painted at the turn of the twentieth century, this magnificent work shows a storm lashing the coast of Capri. Seagulls fly above the waves and, at the far left, a small sailing boat can only just be seen. This sole sign of human life is in stark contrast with the forces of Nature. This type of work made at Capri had no equivalent at the time. It is both powerful and symbolist. In rendering these contrasts, Diefenbach exhibits his talent as a great German painter. He used his painting almost exclusively to express his ideas of an idealistic and ‘natural’ way of living. He was much less interested in artistic recognition. While his early works were still populated by a few human figures, the landscape itself only carried symbolic meaning in his later paintings.

After the bankrupt of the Reformation commune he lived in, Diefenbach settled on Capri in 1899. Here, he stayed until his death in 1913 and produced over 200 paintings. Diefenbach was attracted by the island’s awe-inspiring nature and painted the coast many times, often in multiple versions of a same theme. Two smaller works similar to the present painting, entitled Coast at night (1900) and Storm at sea (ca. 1902-03) are kept in a prestigious private collection in Vienna (see Claudia Wagner, Der Künstler Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (1851-1913). Meister und Mission, Ph. D., Berlin, 2007, p. 53). The move to Capri also marked a new painting style, where Diefenbach experimented with the composition of his paints and materials (see Claudia Wagner, op.cit., p. 197).

As the son of the painter Leonhard Diefenbach, Karl Diefenbach received his first training in the arts from his father. He later studied at the Munich Academy of Arts under Ludwig von Löfftz, Wilhelm Lindenschmidt and Alexander Strähuber. Diefenbach fell ill with typhoid fever in 1873-1874 and had to pause his studies for a long period of time. His illness proved to be a life changing experience, leaving him with a crippled right arm and a profound interest in the Reformation movement. Diefenbach became an adherent of the movement himself, living as a hermit from 1883 in a country commune called Himmelhof, near Vienna. His most famous work of these years is a large frieze Per aspera ad astra, composed of 34 paintings totalling 68 meters long. It represents a train of animals and naked children in silhouettes. After his untimely death, Diefenbach’s work was mostly forgotten. It wasn’t until the opening of the Museo Diefenbach at Capri in 1974 that his oeuvre was rediscovered and now appraised by many specialists.

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