Tranquility and Harmony: Carl Moll's Painting of Family Life
Art in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century is synonymous with the vibrant, extravagant canvases of Gustav Klimt, particularly his most radical and transgressive works, such as the National Gallery of Canada’s Hope I (1903). By contrast, the quiet, reflective painting At the Lunch Table (1901) by Carl Moll may strike one as an anomaly of the period. Painted by Klimt’s friend and co-founder of the Vienna Secession, this work is nevertheless an ambitious portrayal of modern life, both in terms of subject and the pictorial idiom used to convey it. At the Lunch Table’s addition to the Gallery’s European art collection – the first painting by the artist to enter a public collection in Canada – highlights the wide range of artistic tendencies during this critical period in art history, revealing the true complexities of avant-garde practices.
While relatively unknown today outside of his homeland of Austria, Carl Julius Rudolf Moll (1861–1945) was one of the leading protagonists in the Vienna art world at the dawn of the 20th century. He exercised great influence on the Secession’s avant-garde program, promoting in particular its exhibitions of works by foreign artists. Moll also helped to establish the Wiener Werkstätte, a co-operative dedicated to applied art. He remained a key figure for the next generation of painters, actively championing the work of young artists such as Oskar Kokoschka.
A sensitive observer and subtle painter, Moll favoured a limited range of subjects: landscapes, still lifes and interior scenes. The latter number among his best known works and resonated deeply with his contemporaries. As Carl E. Schorske’s ground-breaking study Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture has outlined, the notion of interiority – both of the home and the mind – was one of the key elements of Viennese modernity. Disillusioned by the failure of liberal politics, writers and artists withdrew from the public sphere and turned their attention toward the vibrant cultural life of the home. Avant-garde artists conceived sensation-rich environments for their bourgeois clients, typified above all by the Wiener Werkstätte’s designs.
In 1895 Moll married Anna Schindler-Bergen, the widow of his teacher, a landscape painter. In At the Lunch Table, the artist embraces the ideal of quiet domesticity and familial affection, portraying his wife, their young daughter Maria and his stepdaughter Alma (later Alma Mahler). The richly set table juts out toward the viewer, simultaneously inviting us to join the meal and rejecting too close an intimacy. This is at once a scene of everyday life among the upper middle class, and the evocation of a well-ordered, harmonious tranquility. Moll’s concentrated attention on the still life aspects of the painting is not gratuitous: this is a well-off, but not ostentatious, household; everything is carefully designed, elegant and functional. The cutlery and ceramics, the reassuringly familiar rituals of the table, are meant to be experienced fully and enjoyed. The care taken to craft a thoughtful, cheerful lifestyle has a moral dimension, implying an ordered, peaceful and aesthetically rich life, which was for Moll and many of his contemporaries, the ideal life.
Such interior scenes allowed Moll to explore the Secessionist ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art), fusing architecture, design and performance. At the Lunch Table was painted in the artist’s new villa, designed by the renowned Secessionist architect Josef Hoffmann as part of an artists’ colony in Hohe Warte, a fashionable Vienna suburb. In a series of paintings made at this time, Moll presented his home as a self-contained aesthetic totality, where everything – architectural elements, furniture, dress, even the most mundane utensils – creates the setting for a truly modern life, a life of sensibility.
Moll shows fragments of these spaces, offering apparently intimate glimpses of his family’s private life in compositions reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch painting. His subjects are often oblivious to observation, absorbed in the moment. Yet Moll’s attention to their environments, his ability to find a pictorial means of conveying their experience of the light filtering through the room, the turning the page of a book, or the touch of cloth or soup ladle, gives the viewer access to something of their interior state of mind. We can participate in their experience. Figures and setting are one, and the environment “completes” them – or substitutes for them, if they are cropped or sit with their backs to us – revealing aspects of their being and personality.
This sense of shared experience is mediated through the artist, and in particular his touch. Moll’s style is personal, developed out of European-wide practices at the end of the 19th century. It retains elements of the classic Impressionist interest in conveying our perception of the world, while also being influenced by the Post-Impressionist turn towards experimentation with more abstract qualities. In At the Lunch Table Moll shows his predilection for the French pointillist technique, with meticulously applied and vivid dabs of colour; at the same time, he embraces the structural elements of contemporary decorative painting with a strict organization of the surface.
The careful application of paint implies an equally careful observation. Variations in the pattern, type and scale of the marks speed up or slow down our gaze as it falls across the painting. The plates, silver, fruit and flowers are meticulously fashioned; the windows are broadly treated, the marks gestural and the paint bodied. The subtle description of the scene encourages us to look more closely, and as we scan across the canvas, we see the blue winter light filtering in through the sun-drenched curtains, delicately interlacing with the artificial light of the room. Natural and artificial light, warm and cool, come together in a perfect synthesis, captured on the tablecloth, silver, glassware and on the figures themselves. In 1906 Ludwig Hevesi marveled at this “amazingly successful” treatment of light: “The problem of light is treated with spirit and boldness down to the last point, and using a new stippling technique which blends so well the different elements of light and colour effects.” The result is an extraordinary sense of the room itself. While not literally descriptive – the same marks are used for very different things – there is nonetheless a sense of reality. This is part optic, part haptic, as if we could feel the weight of the objects – an effect that is balanced by the strong sense of design and decorative impulse favoured by many of Moll’s contemporaries.
At the Lunch Table, arguably one of the artist’s most successful works, comes to the Gallery from a private collection. Believed to have been lost for nearly a century, the work was once owned by Siegmund Isaias Zollschan of Vienna, and was among several possessions that he sent to a relative in Canada for safekeeping before the war. Tragically, the Zollschans, a Jewish family, were persecuted by the Nazis and Siegmund perished in the Holocaust. His painting has been cared for by the family in Canada ever since.
Carl Moll's painting At the Lunch Table is on view in Gallery C215 of the National Gallery of Canada. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.