A group of monkeys.

The controversy of Gabriel Cornelius Von Max's "The Critics"

By Beth Hamilton

Gabriel von Max painted some of the most controversial subjects in Europe during the late nineteenth century, from anatomical dissections, to religious scenes of crucifixions, and monkeys performing human activities. As the son of a sculptor, Josef Max, the young von Max followed in his family tradition and became an artist despite his early interest in science. Starting at fifteen, von Max began collecting fossils, artifacts, skeletons, and other found objects that piqued his varied interests. He would later house his large collection in the drawing room of his home in Munich, categorizing it into three groups: prehistory, zoology and anthropology, and ethnography.

As a student at the Prague Academy of Arts between 1855 and 1858, von Max largely ignored his artistic curriculum and instead gravitated toward the natural sciences. He studied the writings of scientists Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck and Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was first published in 1859. Von Max later studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich by 1863. During his studies, von Max would eventually showcase and explore his interests in parapsychology, hypnotism, spiritism, Asiatic philosophy, various mystical traditions, and natural sciences through his naturalistic and provocative paintings.

While von Max’s religious paintings earned him a particular status among art critics, he simultaneously worked on paintings of monkeys, which at the time was considered an inferior genre. He even earned the title, “Affenmaler,” (monkey painter). Von Max acquired his first capuchin monkey in 1870, and later bred the animals at his Munich home near Starnberger Lake. He painted the monkeys in both living and deceased states; when the monkeys died, he positioned their bodies in specific poses and photographed them as material for later paintings. Von Max was fascinated with the link between humans and primates, an interest that aligned with the recent developments in evolutionary biology. Whereas the tradition in European paintings often associated monkeys with the vulnerabilities of humans, von Max humanized his subjects.

One of von Max’s most famous paintings depicting monkeys is titled, Affen als Kunstrichter (Monkeys as Art Critics). It was completed in 1889 and acquired that year by the Neue Pinakotech in Munich. In fact, the artist painted several versions after the success of the original painting. The present example, The Critics, is one of four known paintings executed after the original. Aleš Filip and Roman Musil elaborate on this work in their essay “’From Christ – to an Orangutan’ Notes on the Thematic Range of the Work of Gabriel von Max,”

“Monkeys play the role of observers in one of Max’s most famous paintings, originally titled Kränzchen and later known as Affen als Kunstrichter (Monkeys as Art Critics), 1889. The illusion in this case consists of the presence of several monkey species that, in reality, could never accept being together in such a small space. The improbable (monkeys examining a painting) is made probable here by means of verist painting effects and the painter’s ability to render the image of living animals (even though he used only photos of dead monkeys fixed in position instead of live models). […] The illusion in Monkeys as Art Critics goes further yet, as Max addresses the illusion of painting itself as a depictive medium by presenting viewers with only the frame and the back of the painting canvas.” [Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, ed., Gabriel von Max (Published on the Occasion of the Exhibition “Gabriel von Max: Be-Tailed Cousins and Phantasms of the Soul” at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, USA, from July 9 to October 30, 2011) Seattle, Wash: Frye Art Museum, 2011], p. 70.

Cover image: Gabriel Cornelius Von Max, Czechoslovakian / German, 1840-1915. The Critics. Oil on canvas. 30 x 41 3/4 inches.