Sunday on the Rhine With Georg and Friends
IT was the last Sunday in September, the more or less official end of the season, a brilliant Indian summer kind of day, but with a touch of coolness in the breeze, and the sunshine filtered through just a bit of blue haze.
The pleasure in being out along the Rhine on such a day seemed to be only intensified by the knowledge that the afternoon would be an hour shorter than the one before, this being the first day off summer time.
Everyone in Germany seemed to have taken the television weatherman's advice to heart and gone off on an outing.
The specifics of the scene were thoroughly German: the river itself, the steamers making their way up and down it, the sausage stands, the beer gardens, the half-timbered little houses in the village center, some of them displaying the "Zimmer Frei" sign that is the equivalent of the English "bed and breakfast" sign.
But the kind of scene it was seemed to cry out for one of the French Impressionists to travel forward in time to paint it: It was a latter-day version of the kind of spontaneous celebration of weekend leisure by the urbanized middle classes that a Renoir or a Monet, or maybe a Seurat, might have painted.
Sunday on the Rhine with Georg and friends, so to speak: The dazzling light on the river, the flags snapping in the breeze, the citizens promenading along the embankment, heading for a pleasure cruise, Kuchen und Kaffee, or maybe just the streetcar homeward. The Impressionists would have caught the serious, hard-working barges making their way on the river, too.
It was the English, though, from whom Germans learned to appreciate the romantic Rhine as a landscape: This is the message of an exhibition at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn called "Seized by the Magic of the Rhine." It presents oil paintings and water colors by a number of British artists, from J. M. W. Turner to lesser-known painters such as James Webb and George Clarkson Stanfield.
These painters were among a wave of eager tourists who, after things calmed down after the Napoleonic wars, traveled to the Continent - Mary Shelley of "Frankstein" fame among them. They set off with their guidebooks and their watercolor sets and their complete inability, in most cases, to communicate with the natives once they got to Germany, as a guide at the museum notes with irony. How much their paintings reflected the landscape that was before them, and how much they reflected what was inside the a rtists can be guessed at in some cases by comparisons with contemporary photographs.
What might not be guessed from the picturesque sailing vessels that figure in these paintings is that what really made travel through the Rhine Valley practical for people on a large scale was the introduction of regular steamship service in 1827.
This is one of the paradoxes that comes through in the exhibition: It was a modern technology, applied commercially, that gave the masses access to the medieval ruins of the romantic Rhine.
And so it is today. One of the best-known features of the Rhine landscape near Bonn is the Drachenfels, a huge outcropping of rock high above the river. Celebrated by Lord Byron and countless English artists, it is now made accessible to the masses by way of a cog railway. In the paintings, the Drachenfels appears as a stark and lonely spike of stone. Today tourists climb over it like ants on an anthill. The view from the top is spectacular; surely no less so than in Byron's time.
But the tension between providing access, especially mass access, to a place of beauty and preserving that beauty continues. So does the tension between the aesthetic and commercial values of a place.
Up in the Lake District in England, one hears, the rail line goes no farther than Windermere because the poet William Wordsworth and his friends protested against its extension.
The crowds out along the Rhine on a day like this make you believe all you hear about how densely populated Germany is. But with so many people having such a good time, it would be hard to begrudge them the pleasures of their landscape - even if they had to wait for the British to teach them how to appreciate it.