Saturday, April 9, 2011

Heinrich Schlitt and the Family Stein

The picture of the gnome shown here demonstrates the artistry of an almost forgotten German artist whose major legacy was decorating drinking vessels, as I found out recently in researching a beer stein that has been in my family for more than 60 years.

The artist was Heinrich Schlitt, who was born in 1849 in Biebrich-Mosbach, now part of the German state of Hesse. The son of a civil servant, Schlitt was drawn to art from his youth. In the early 1870’s his career took him to Munich, the capital of Bavaria where he found considerable success. Because of his attraction to humorous and fanciful topics, his paintings and illustrations were popular. He frequently featured German folk characters such as fairies and gnomes.

In the late 1800s Schlitt joined the ceramics firm of Villeroy and Boch in Mettlach, Germany, where he produced many designs that come to life as the illustrations for beer steins. His signature graces many of the company steins of that era.

Enter my family. Sometime in the 1940s my father did favors for a neighbor who repaid him by a gift of a beer stein. It was prominently displayed in our home for almost 40 years. Upon my father’s death, I inherited it. Only relatively recently, however, did I attempt to establish its provenance by writing the Villeroy and Boch museum in Germany.

The curator, Ester Schneider, wrote me documenting that the stein dates from about 1901 and was designed by Schlitt, whose signature appears on the vessel. Shown here from two angles, the lidded stein depicts the Grimm Brother’s folk tale of the Seven Swabians. These lads were the German equivalent of “Dumb and Dumber.”

Frequently depicted by German artists, as in this postcard view, the Seven Swabians decided “to travel throughout the world seeking adventure and performing great deeds,” according to the Grimms. For this crusade the company obtained a sword long enough that all seven could take hold of it at once. Encountering a rabbit on their journey all were very afraid that it was a monster but gripped the weapon and charged. To their relief, the rabbit ran away.

On the family stein, however, Schlitt depicts the Swabians as older and preparing to eat a rabbit for dinner. Over a boiling pot, the long spear holds a lantern to light the scene for the cooks as the seven settle in for an evening meal. The artist returned to the Swabian theme frequently in his designs for Villeroy and Boch ceramics, including very tall drinking beer steins.

As he grew older Schlitt, described by contemporaries as “a kindly wizard” and “jolly and full of fun,’” became increasingly lonely, eccentric and depressive. His photograph shown here, said to be only one of two known to exist, shows a man who seems distinctly unhappy at being in the lens. Schlitt died in 1923 and was buried, together with other honored Munich artists, in the Waldenfriedhof Cemetery.

Today Heinrich Schlitt’s drawings, oils, watercolors and murals receive occasional notice in the European art world. He is best known and remembered, it appears, by collectors of beer steins worldwide. As one American writer has expressed it, the artist is cherished for his “...wizened visages of avaricious gnomes, mellowed by just a tinge of wry good humor; the anthropomorphic treatment of beer-mugs and pretzels, sausages and steins, devils and playing cards, towers and trees.”

Stein collectors are said to greet the name “Heinrich Schlitt” with shouts of ecstasy. If that is an exaggerated commentary, they have certainly elevated the prices on his Villeroy and Boch designs. I am looking at the Schlitt Swabian stein these days with new appreciation and a resolution to keep it in the family.

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