Following in the footsteps of Czech painter Josef Mánes

Following in the footsteps of Czech painter Josef Mánes

Get to know the father of Czech romantic painting, who was born 200 years ago

HomeWhat's NewFollowing in the footsteps of Czech painter Josef Mánes
To many Czechs, Josef Mánes is almost synonymous with landscape painting of the Romanticism and Realism periods of the 19th century. There is hardly anybody in the Czech Republic who would not at least know his works by sight. They are not only full of folk customs but also stormy skies. And although very few visitors know, most tourists coming to Prague will take a few photographs of works by this artist home with them. How is that possible? Actually, perhaps Mánes’ best-known work is the decoration of the astronomical clock in Old Town Square in Prague. Who was Josef Mánes, who would have celebrated his 200th birthday this year, and why is he such a notable Czech painter?

Life of the romantic artist

Josef Mánes was born in Prague precisely 200 years ago, specifically on 12 May 1820, into an artistic family. His father Antonín was already a painter, as were all of his children, Amálie, Quido and, of course, Josef. He grew up in an environment that shaped his whole life in this way. He solely made his living by painting. He had rich benefactors who supported him, but he also went through hard times that left wounds in his sensitive soul that never healed. He was one of those Czech artists who took pains to boost the national spirit and rebuild the nation, which at that time was slowly disappearing within German-speaking territories. In the end, Mánes died in Prague from problems related to mental disease at the age of 51. Where can you see his works?

Old Town Hall astronomical clock

The most prestigious of Mánes’ commissions, to which he devoted a lot of time and study, was a round plate in the lower part of the Old Town Hall astronomical clock in Prague. Twelve smaller circles depict the signs of the zodiac, and in the larger circles you can see Mánes’ motifs of typical works for the month he depicts. The motifs are easy to understand. What’s more, when you look at them really carefully and in detail, you will spot Bezděz, the Central Bohemian Uplands, Říp Mountain, Kunětice Mountain and Trosky Castle in the background of individual pictures, which were popular places among the first tourists in the 19th century. Today, you can only see a replica of the plate on the Old Town Hall, whereas the original is on public display in the City of Prague Museum. You can take a look at the astronomical clock here >

Čechy pod Kosířem Chateau

Josef Mánes spent most of his life in Prague. However, the chateau in the municipality of Čechy pod Kosířem in central Moravia near Olomouc become his second home for a full 20 years with rather short breaks. Mánes arrived there for the first time at the invitation of his friend, Count Bedřich Silva-Tarouca, and would return there almost until his death. As he usually stayed there for lengthy periods, the time spent at the chateau can be counted in years. The life of the chateau, as well as Haná with its countryside, people and folk costumes, offered Mánes a number of themes for both large and small paintings, oil paintings, watercolours and drawings. He produced a series of beautiful portraits of both men and women in folk costumes, a genuine ‘snapshot’ of life in the Moravian countryside. Even you can follow in Mánes’ footsteps here >

National Gallery in Prague

Works by Josef Mánes are on public display both in galleries and private collections as Josef was a highly prolific artist. Numerous works ended up as a part of the collection of the National Gallery in Prague. For example, you can find the oil painting Josefina there. This portrait of a young woman rendered as a semi-nude painting has been shrouded in mystery to this day. The identity of the portrayed woman has never been established. According to one theory, it is the actress Josefina N, but the claim that it is the ideal female form from Josef’s fantasies cannot be ruled out either. However, the picture was apparently of special importance to Mánes because he kept it in his studio until his death. You can visit the National Gallery, specifically the permanent exhibition Art of the Long Century, virtually here >

Mánes house on the Vltava riverfront in Prague

Mánes’ popularity with artists of that time is shown by the fact that the Mánes Association of Fine Artists, which was founded several years after Josef’s death, chose his name. One of its efforts was co-organising exhibitions of Czech and European art. The association only built its own exhibition hall in the 1930s, and today you can find the functionalist Mánes Building in all its beauty on the riverfront in Prague, not far from the Dancing House.