Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Woodland pool with a man fishing and bystander, detail, 1793
Kolbe was born in Berlin (his father was a gold thread embroiderer) and pursued a career in philology alongside his artistic activities, composing a long book on the French and German languages. It wasn't until 1789 that he decided to train in art at the Berlin Academy and had to put up with being 'a bearded man in his thirties among a flock of boys, ten to twelve years in age'. He then obtained a post as court engraver in Dessau, publishing prints in Leipzig and Berlin and acquiring the nickname Eichenkolbe (Oak Kolbe) because he was so fond of depicting oak trees (he said 'trees have turned me into an artist'). The exhibition includes several examples of pastoral and woodland scenes with some impressive oak trees My photograph above shows a detail from an early etching with some doodles in the margins (the face in profile is possibly a self-caricature).
I've always thought it would be fascinating to compile a dictionary of the many sub-genres of landscape art - sous-bois for example, the French term for woodland scenes of the kind shown above. Such a book might include micro-genres particular to specific artists and one of the strangest of these would be Kolbe's Kräuterblätter (cabbage-sheets) - scenes featuring over-sized plant life, like his 1801 version of Et in Arcadia Ego. As Andrew Graham-Dixon writes, these etchings 'plunge the eye into vertiginous screens of foliage, spectacularly sculptural blasted trees and writhing, threateningly enlarged clumps of wild vegetation. It is hard to say if these are dreams of oneness with nature or fantasies of being consumed by it.' Kolbe himself came to rather regret these later in life, admitting in his autobiography that he had invented these plants 'completely out of my head, and I acknowledge that I was wrong - very wrong - to do so. Their perhaps not entirely unattractive forms may seduce the eye of the unlearned; the critical gaze of the naturalist cannot bear them.'