Lavric AHAS 10angl


The work of the Swedish painter Augustin Dahlsteen for the vicar general Karl Peer of Ljubljana

The doctor of theology Karl Peer (Braslovče, 1697 – Ljubljana, 1776) became the canon of Ljubljana “ad baculum” in 1741, the parish priest in 1742 and vicar general in 1744 (he kept this post until the end of his life). He is primarily known as a library patron: as an enthusiastic bibliophile he acquired a valuable book collection which became a part of the Lyceum Library in Ljubljana after his death. The books include theological and secular works, among them a series of editions of the Doctors of the Church and Greek and Roman classics that reveal the collector's spiritual and intellectual horizon.

In art history literature Peer has been mentioned merely in connection with the so-called "Peer Wing" of the Seminary in Ljubljana, named after him since he had it built as the director of the institution in the years 1756–1758 to the plans of the architect Candido Zulliani. The refectory and the chapel were frescoed in 1766–1767 by the local painter Anton Cebej, who was paid 450 florins for his work. However, the altarpiece was commissioned by Peer in 1768 from a newcomer from abroad, as the vicar was obviously attracted by his painting skill. This foreigner was the painter Augustin Dahlsteen/Dahlstein (Stockholm, 1720 – Kassel?, around 1769?), a Swede by birth, who had left for Germany already as a young man. Afterwards he settled in Sankt Peterburg for several years, then returned to Kassel, and before his death he apparently spent some time in Ljubljana. His name is revealed by his signatures on two paintings he executed for Karl Peer, but it has not been traced in the archives of Ljubljana yet.

Peer paid the painter 49 florins and 30 kreutzers for the altarpiece in the Seminary chapel. The painting shows the Immaculate, represented as the intercessor, and it belongs to the standard Catholic representations of this motif. The motif, chosen of course by the client who was rooted in Catholic tradition, is rather unusual for the artist coming from a Protestant country and devoting himself to religious subject-matter only by exception. The painter signed the work A. Dahlstein and dated it 1768. The Immaculate is monumentalized through the perspective view from below upwards (di sotto in su) and it excells in harmonious colouring with the special mark of an intensive blue colour.

In addition to the Immaculate, Dahlsteen also painted a portrait of Peer. The painting is now owned by the National and University Library in Ljubljana and was acquired together with the book collection from the former Lyceum Library. The canvas is signed and dated: Augustinus von Dahlstein / Svecus pinx: A.o 1768. The modelling of the figure reveals Dahlsteen’s mastery in oil technique and he is recognizable by the specific hues of the blue colour. As Peer was an elderly man in the time his portrait was executed, his age too supports the assumption that the painter portrayed him in Ljubljana and not abroad.

Several reasons support the belief that (at least) part of the painting decoration in the Festsaal of the bishopric palace in Ljubljana could tentatively be ascribed to the Swedish artist. The authorship of the paintings has not been determined yet nor has the dating been precisely ascertained. However, a more reliable attribution is not possible for the time being due to the lack of sufficient comparative materials. Although the hall was renovated under the bishop Karl Herberstein as late as 1772, it is possible that its embellishment had already been planned by his predecessor Leopold Joseph Petazzi under the influence of vicar general Peer, when an opportunity in the person of a competent painter occurred. As these were movable easel paintings, they could have been included harmoniously into the new interior design also later on. At present, the paintings, which depict marines and floral still-lifes, are mounted in stucco frames. Their subject-matter can easily be matched with Dahlsteen's documented oeuvre, because the artist is known to have also painted marines and he was renowned as a master of decorative painting. The attribution is indirectly supported by the typical northern landscape, and the artist’s style is clearly indicated by the characteristic atmospheric rendering of scenes, with masses of luminously stratified clouds (which occupy a major part of the surface painted), such as we can observe in Dahlsteen's Immaculate. The staffage human figures, dressed in the costume of the time, are painted rather stiffly and monotonously and they seem to be too awkward for Dahlsteen at first sight, but if a comparison is made with his graphic depictions of Russian folk types, a certain resemblance in terms of form and content can be observed, since the painter was attracted above all by common people and their costumes and activities, and their figures often appear similarly graceless.

The personal style of the work by Augustin Dahlsteen differs considerably from the painting patrimony of the Slovenian lands in the period of transition from the late Baroque to Classicism and it means a refreshing artistic idiom to this milieu. Karl Peer, who recognized the foreigner as a skilled master and commissioned works from him, thus enriched Slovenian art heritage and widened its horizons through his open-mindedness.