Overlooked painters of genius; German Romantic Painting, by William Vaughan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. $45.

The name of Casper David Friedrich was unknown except to a very small number of Americans as little as a decade ago.And those of Philipp Otto Runge, Carl Gustav Carus, Carl Blechen, and Moritz von Schwind are even less known here today.But that's not surprising, considering that German Romanticism, the 19 th-century art movement these artists represent, is still pretty much of an unknown factor in this country.

One hopes that situation will soon be remedied. At any rate, help is here in the form of William Vaughan's excellent and long overdue study of the climate and genius of German Romantic painting.

Dr. Vaughan tackles this problem of familiarity headlong in his book's introduction: "The years around 1800 were those of one of Germany's greatest cultural flowerings. Not since the Renaissance and Reformation -- the age of Durer and Luther -- had Germans achieved so much in so many varied fields, or made such crucial contributions to the development of European civilization. . . . The high stature of the German music, literature, and philosophy of this period is generally recognized in other countries. But this is not the case with the visual art. Today German painting of the early 19th century receives little attention outside its native country."

If such neglect were deserved, this book would be of interest only to art historians and a few specialized collectors. But it is not deserved, for one thing, because the philosophies and theories, the talents and the works of art of German Romanticism were exceptional. And, for another, because this movement produced one of the most extraordinary landscape painters ever to grace European art: Casper David Friedrich.

It was Dr. Vaughan's fascination with Friedrich's work that prompted his interest in German Romanticism, and which ultimately led to the writing of this book. And Friedrich dominates and colors this book as much as his art overshadowed that of his German contemporaries.

There is no getting around the fact that Friedrich was a major, probably even a great landscape painter, and that it's high time we got to know him better. For that reason alone this book would be a valuable addition to any art library; its 13 excellent color plates and numerous other fine illustrations of Friedrich's work cover the full range of his work from a traditional 1797 watercolor rendering of a park, to his haunting late paintings of figures by the sea, executed shortly before his passing in 1840.

But, like the scholar he is, Dr. Vaughan sets the art of Friedrich within its full historical, social, and philosophical context, traces the influence of others upon him, and then proceeds to discuss those aspects of the German Romantic movement which extended beyond, and even in some cases denied, his influence.

It is an altogether engrossing book. The pages on Runge, Carus, Schinkel, Blechen, Richter, von Schwind, etc., are among the best on these artists to be found anywhere in English. And the same is true of those on another exceptional German artist still too little known here, Adolf von Menzel, as well as those on that remarkable group of artists known collectively as the Nazarenes.

There is no way to do this book full justice in such a short review. It covers too much ground for that, and makes so many subtle points -- both about individual artists and about social and political realities -- that any reviewer , looking for one more reason to recommend this book immediately finds himself swamped by at least half a dozen.

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