"Viehherde am Bach" by Rudolf Koller
Koller, who is regarded as one of the most important nineteenth century Swiss artists is also probably the nation's finest painter of horses and animals. He was born on 21st May 1828 at a 'Zur Rebgrub' in Augustinergasse, Zurich, where his father worked as a butcher. After attending a private school and the Fraumünster elementary school, in 1840 he enrolled at the local Canton Industrieschule. Already at twelve he knew that he wanted to be a horse painter but first he had to gain a strong artistic grounding. From 1843-45 Koller studied in Zurich under the drawing master Jacques Schweizer, the portraitist Johann Rudolf Obrist (1809-68) and the landscape painter Johann Jakob Ulrich (1798-1877), who was to have a formative influence upon his subsequent work. 1845 saw Koller making studies at the King of Wüttemberg's stud near Stuttgart and soon after came the first of many commissions for dog and horse paintings. Koller then moved to Dusseldorf, where from 1846-7 he took figure classes at the Kunstakademie under Carl Ferdinand Sohn (1805-67). While there he began a lifelong friendships with Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) and met the German classical painter Anselm Feuerbach (1829-80), who much admired his work.
Although he was born in Zurich and spent much of his later life there, Koller was keen to travel, so in 1847 he and Böcklin went to Brussels and Antwerp, where they visited many museums. He then continued alone to Paris, where he made countless studies of works in the Louvre, particularly of the Dutch seventeenth century masters such as Teniers, Ruisdael, Rembrandt, Cuyp and Paulus Potter. Koller particularly admired the latter and in turn came to be regarded as a contemporary counterpart to Potter, whose paintings of animals were highly regarded by nineteenth century artists. Like Potter, Koller believed animals were to be treated with respect and represented the true and most dignified image of nature. While in Paris, Koller also studied animal and landscape works by the modern masters in the Musée du Luxembourg such as those by Jacques Raymond Brascassat (1804-67).
By 1848 Koller had run into financial difficulties and thus had to return to Zurich. During the next two years he made a number of studies of the Hasliberg at Brünig and then travelled with his former tutor Ulrich and Gustav Heinrich Ott (circa 1828-1912) to Munich, where he, Böcklin and Johann Caspar Bosshardt (1823-87) worked with a group of artists, known as the 'Schweizer', led by the landscape painter Johann Gottfried Steffan (1815-1905); he also took the opportunity to study the horses in the Upper Bavarian studs. In 1851 after much travelling abroad he returned to Zurich. Soon after Koller completed a beautiful scene of a Waterfall near Zurich (Graphische Sammlung der Eidgenössischen Technischen Hochschule, Zurich) and in his newly opened Zurich studio in Oberstrass received important commissions for animal pictures.
During the early 1850's Koller befriended Robert Zünd (1827-1909) with whom he collaborated on scenes of the Walensee, 1852-53. In May 1856 Koller married Bertha Schlatter, who in fact looked very similar to the female rider in this work. They went on honeymoon to Vienna. The following year he completed his Kuh im Krautgarten, depicting a cow in a cabbage field (Kunsthaus, Zurich). In 1862 Koller and Bertha purchased a house at Hornbach, Zürichhorn, named 'Zur Hornau', where they were to remain for the rest of their lives but sadly in October that year their four-year-old son Heinrich Rudolf Emil died. So keen was he to study animals at first hand that Koller bred a variety of animals at Zur Hornau.
A very important change occurred in his style when in 1865 Koller became aware of the French plein-air painters. Such a change can be understood when comparing, for instance his Idylle am Hasliberg, 1864 (Zunsthaus Zurich), in which he portrayed cows, a peasant and prancing dog in a rather formal wooded glade as compared with his Zwei kosende Kälblein, executed a few years later (Kunsthaus Zurich), in which he positioned two calves in full sunlight and children languishing beyond in the dappled shade. One can also compare his dark and very dramatic mountain scene Gebirgslandschaft mit See of 1857 with the more natural and looser depictions of a midday meal in an open field in Mittagsmahl auf dem Felde 1869 and cattle watering in Kühe am Weher, 1874 (all of which are in the Kunstmuseum, Lucerne). From November 1868 until June the following year he went on a trip to Italy, visiting Florence, Rome and Naples resulting in such works as Cows in the Roman Countryside, 1869 (Kunstmuseum, Berne), in which his portrayal of animals can be compared with those by his renowned French contemporary, Rosa Bonheur (1822-99).
From about 1870 Koller began suffering from problems with his eyes; during subsequent years he was still able to paint but less frequently although the quality of his work was by no means impaired as is evident in such lyrical works as Horses at the Drinking Fountain, 1890 (Musée des Beaux Arts, Le Locle). In 1872 he took a trip to the Riviera followed by a longer stay the next year in Vienna. 1873 was also the year of his seminal work Gotthardpost (1873, Kunsthaus Zurich). This renowned piece, which he made a copy the following year (Credit Suisse, Zurich) typified many characteristics that defined his career as one of the new generation of Swiss artists, that included Koller's friends Arnold Böcklin, Frank Buchser (1828-90) and Gustave Castan (1823-92). Each was keen to raise the national status of Swiss art onto a par with mainstream Europe. In 1848 the outdated association of the cantons that made up the Swiss confederation were replaced by a more modern democratic federal state and it was this move toward a more modern way of life that Koller was keen to express in the Gotthardpost. It showed the St. Gotthard mail coach hurtling along the pass, narrowly missing cattle that stood in its path. Thus while it portrayed a regional subject it carried a more universal message, for the St. Gotthard Pass