Private collector, Germany, acquired directly from the artist, circa 1910;
and by descent in the family until 2019
Künstlerhaus, Vienna, XXXVI Jahresausstellung, 1910, no. 358.
“Jahresausstellung im Künstlerhaus,” Deutsches Volksblatt, March 17, 1910, p. 9 and April 3, 1910, p. 18.
“36 Jahresausstellung im Künstlerhaus,” Wiener Abnendpost, March 23, 1910, p. 3.
“Jahresausstellung im Künstlerhaus,” Neues Wiener Tagblatt,March 26, 1910, p. 1.
“Kunstaustellungen – Künstlerhaus,” and “Besuch des Kaisers im Künstlerhaus,” Neue Frei Presse,March 24, 1910, p. 8 and April 3, 1910, p. 9.
Born into a family of artists, including his father, his first teacher, and his older brother, Leopold, Alexander Rothaug (fig. 1) was active as a painter, stage designer, and illustrator in both Austria and Germany. He trained first in sculpture at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts but in 1885 switched to painting, studying especially with the orientalist painter Leopold Carl Müller. Following Müller’s death in 1892, Rothaug went to Munich working primarily as a prolific magazine illustrator and had his first public exhibitions, but most importantly during the time spent in Munich he studied the work of the popular and sensational painter Franz von Stuck (1863-1928). Following in that master’s line, Rothaug produced a great many mythological and literary subjects as well as an occasional religious one, episodes from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and his own inventive allegories, costumes for operas, and imaginary portraits of historical figures. After travels to Italy, Spain, and Dalmatia, Rothaug was by 1897 back in Vienna, where he was exhibited and became active in various artistic organizations. Rothaug’s work varies greatly in approach, but in general it can be said that he practiced a kind of imaginative, heroic style in bright colors that combined elements of classicism, Jugendstil (art nouveau) and symbolism that was very suitable for the many large-scale decorations he produced for theaters, hotels, spas, and churches. He was also a master draughtsman and in 1933 even wrote an illustrated treatiseStatics and Dynamics of the Human Body.
The present magnificent painting shows the artist working in his most restrained classical mode rather than the turbulent manner he applied to more dramatic subjects. It represents the Three Fates. These since the 8thcentury BC in Greek poetry had been personified by three women spinning the threads of human destiny. In Greek they were known as Moiraibut in the Latin of Roman mythology they became Parcae. Their names in Greek were Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Allotter), and Atropos (the Inflexible). Their names in Latin were Nona, Decuma, and Morta. It was the last one who determined an individual’s moment of death and cut the thread. There was a long tradition of their representation in the arts from late medieval Netherlandish tapestries, to Italian Renaissance prints and paintings, and into the nineteenth century with paintings and sculpture in England and Germany (figs. 2a- i) that Rothaug could well have known. Following after him in depicting the theme were fellow Austrian symbolist Rudolph Jettmar and the German Theodor Baierl (figs. 2j-k). In general the practice was to represent Nona and Decuna as young woman and Atropos or Morta as an old one. But the imagery of the Three Fates was given a new lease on life in the late nineteenth century through the popularity of Wagner’s great epic music drama The Ring of the Nibelung. The last opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung, which premiered in 1876, begins with the three Norns of Norse mythology, daughters of the earth goddess Erda, weaving the rope of Destiny, which suddenly breaks, signaling the end of the rule of the gods and their own loss of wisdom. These Norns are very like a Germanic version of the three Fates, and Wagner created an eerie, gloomy scene full of dark foreboding, which served to inspire many artists and illustrators (figs. 3a-i). Rothaug who did a good many depictions of the Wagnerian Ring operas (figs. 4a-b), would, like all cultivated individuals of the era, undoubtedly also have had the Norns in mind when he painted his Fates. He also would have known earlier allegorical paintings by von Stuck which presented female figures in classical guise and balanced compositions (figs. 5a-e).
In the tradition of perhaps the most famous representation of the Fates, Johann Gottfried Schadow’s grave relief for Alexander von der Mark in Berlin (fig. 2g), Rothaug presents here his own very balanced composition with the two younger seated Fates flanking the central figure of Morta, who, enthroned in the center like a hieratic Byzantine queen, isnot so much older as grimmer, with darkened skin and covered eyes, wearing a black dress and holding up her blade. Seated female figures were one of Rothaug’s favorite subjects, and they appear, both clothed and nude, in many of his works (figs. 6a-i). For the Fates he gave each one distinctive hand gestures as they spin the threads. Their elegant looms,although seeming classical are very much in keeping with contemporary Viennese art nouveau designs, recalling both the fabric patterns of Josef Hoffmann and the tile work on the façade of Otto Wagner’s Majolica House (figs. 7a-d). Likewise the two calm, young women in their shear, flowing garments and well-coiffed, flower-encrusted heads are also representative of the fashionable style of dress in early twentieth-century Vienna (fig. 7e).
The whole composition of Rothaug’s painting of the three Fates is like a great painted relief. To convey the personality of each of them, he has inserted three lively, miniaturized individual vignettes in the lower ranks of the steps. These miniaturized subjects are appropriate to each of the Fates. At the left it is a nude mother and child symbolic of new life (fig. 8a); at the right it is a dancing happy nude family, representing the continuation of life (fig. 8b) and reminiscent of another later painting by the artist (fig. 9); and finally directly under the grim Morta is a supine male corpse (fig. 8c). This symbolic image of death had, like the whole painting, a long traditional background from Grünewald’s and Holbein’s dead Christs (figs. 10a-b) through a number of nineteenth-century predecessors, including examples by Max Klinger and von Stuck (figs. 10c-h).
In preparing his paintings, Rothaug made detailed preliminary drawings, and studies of seated female figures appear in his sketchbook as well as in individual sheets (figs. 11a-b). One aspect of Rothaug’s talent that makes this work so remarkable is his trompe l’oeilpainting of the blue and white marble steps. This is an especially beautiful effect, and one which he also used in other paintings (figs.12a-b). But these do not rival the power of this compelling work. Shown to acclaim in a 1910 exhibition, it was purchased by a private collector and vanished from view. It has remained long unknown, so now its rediscovery is a major occasion and serves to position Rothaug as a central creative figure in the Viennese milieu of Freud, Klimt, and Hoffmann.