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Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1609-82/3)

Sarmatians at the Tomb of Ovid circa 1653

Oil on canvas | 105.9 x 88.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 402935

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  • A group of five figures gathers next to a tomb, attempting to decipher and write down its inscription. A horse and dog complete the scene. The mood is one of mystery and intrigue, as if the individuals had just happened upon this monument in unchartered territory after weeks of searching. Their hair is shaven to affect an oriental manner and they have been identified as Sarmatians – a people now known to be comprised of Iranians from the South Russian Steppe and Black Sea. There were originally six figures but one was erased standing to the right of the horse. The epitaph is Ovid's own from his Tristia, discernible in the Budapest version but obscured in the Royal Collection picture.

    Tristia 3.3.73-76:
    hic ego qui iaceo tenerorum lusor amorum / ingenio perii Naso poeta meo; / at tibi qui transis ne sit graue quisquis amasti / dicere "Nasonis molliter ossa cubent

    (I who lie here, sweet Ovid, poet of tender passions, / fell victim to my own sharp wit. / Passer-by, if you've ever been in love, don't grudge me / The traditional prayer: 'May Ovid's bones lie soft!).

    Around 8 AD Ovid went into exile in Tomis, west of the black sea; he names two crimes: his poetry and a wrongdoing. Certainly his lascivious verses would have brought the poet a significant amount of trouble but the wrongdoing remains ambiguous. The poet wrote throughout this nine year exile: in a letter to his wife he tells over his troubles 'as he lies desperately ill among the Getes and Sarmatians, without lodging or food suitable for a sick man and with no physician to feed him'. Humanist scholarship has since identified Sarmatians with the Slavs and particularly with Poles. Over the centuries, there have been a numerous attempts to find the true tomb, with locations ranging from Romania to Hungary and Poland. Each nation wished to claim Ovid as its own. Many tombs have been claimed, but none has proved conclusive. The painting could be an illustration of one of the many Renaissance accounts of tomb-finding expeditions, such as that by S. Sarnicki in 1587. According to historian J B Trapp 'the story of Ovid's Tomb is a good example of the impulse that the uncertain and the far-off gives to the learned imagination, especially in default of sound archaeological, epigraphical or other collateral evidence'. Eugène Delacroix's painting of Ovid in exile among the Scythians was exhibited at the Salon in 1859.

    This group picture builds on soldier paintings done around 1653-4; there are two in the Lichtenstein's Gemaldegalerie in Vaduz (Nr. 1231 and 1235). A diagonal composition incorporating ancient ruins fits with the artist's early Roman period of the 1650s. Though the painting is now very dirty, it is easy to see that the style is somewhat rapid, similar to his Gideon Inspects his Army in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (No. 0165) which is dated 1653. There is an element of Caravaggio about the depiction of the soldiers. Schönfeld has also been compared with Pietro della Vecchia, Sebastian Bourdon and Jacques Callot.

    Above all, though, the artist drew influence from Nicholas Poussin. Both Poussin and Schönfeld had love of Ovid and employed the flow of diagonals in their painting, conceiving stage-like compositions of figures inspired by a study of classical art. Sarmatians at the Tomb of Ovid's genre is that of Poussin's Et in arcadia ego (found earlier in Guercino), especially the version in Chatsworth (UK). The phrase translates as "Even in Arcadia, there am I" and is usually interpreted as a memento mori with "I" refering to death, and "Arcadia" meaning an ideal land. Schönfeld scholar Herbert Pée, in a comparison of the two artist, comments on the difference between 'the prosaic dramtist, Poussin' and 'the lyrical poet, Schönfeld'.

    A version of this painting is in Budapest's Fine Arts Museum Nr.K.6 and another, lost after the Second World War, was in the property of Dr Hermann Voss and was shown at an exhibition of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Italian painting in Wiesbaden in 1935 (No. 82). Pée believes the Budapest version to be a copy by the artist, and the Royal Collection's work to be the original. The artist's source and purpose in creating this painting are apparently unknown and no preparatory drawings or subsequent engravings have since come to light.

    Schönfeld was probably the finest German painter of the middle of the Seventeenth Century. He is one of the foremost painters of the German Baroque. Sandrart wrote of the 'firm' manner of his draughtsmanship, saying that there was 'something very pleasing about his brush'. Due to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) it became even more common for German artists to seek training abroad, though painters like Durer Holbein and Schwarz had already travelled in the Sixteenth Century. Italy was the most popular destination – Rome or Venice.

    Born in Swabia, South Germany, in 1609, Schönfeld was the son of a goldsmith and trained with Johann Sichelbein in Memmingen. Early drawings show the fascination with antiquity that would dominate much of his output. He travelled, staying in Rome for much of the 1630s where he was influenced by Poussin's classicism, his frieze-like compositions, stage-set surroundings and mixture of recognisable antique buildings with imagined ruins. Schönfeld left Rome and arrived in Naples around 1638 where he came under the influence of the Salvator Rosa, a poetic artist with an enthusiasm for magic, bandits and wild terrain. Later, Schönfeld began to paint more religious subjects and his content becomes noticeably more spiritual.

    In 1652 the artist returned to Germany via Venice, settling in Augsburg. There, in the early 1650s, he painted a number of pictures of soldiers after the Thirty Years War. And in the early 1660s he returned to the theme of treasure seeking: for Schönfeld, a way of representing memento mori. In later life he made mainly religious works. Schönfeld was engraved by subsequent artists such as Bartholomaus Kilian II, Philipp and Wolfgang Kilian.


    Bought by Charles II from Frizell in 1662: No. 41 'The Sepulcher of Ovid, of Schonevelt'

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    105.9 x 88.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    121.5 x 103.9 x 5.2 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    Hungarians at the Tomb of Ovid

    Ruins with five Turks taking a description of it