Swiss, 1866 - 1926
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Schwabe was born in Germany and raised in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1890 he visited Paris. The following year one of his first paintings, The Evening Bells
, was noticed by Péladan who entrusted him with the task of designing the poster for the first Salon de la Rose+Croix. This poster, which shows two gauzily-clad women climbing the stairs that lead to the ideal, while a third figure, mired in materialism, looks on helplessly, contributed significantly to the success of the show. Although Schwabe exhibited at only one of Péladan's salons, he placed his considerable gifts as a draftsman in the service of Symbolist literature and composed remarkable drawings, many of them enhanced with watercolours, for volumes of poetry by Baudelaire, Catulle Mendès, Albert Samain, Maurice Maeterlinck, Stéphane Mallarmé, and above all Emile Zola's La rêve
, the only novel in the Rougon-Macquart cycle devoted to the transcendent.
Combining the influences of Dürer, Hokusai, and the Pre-Raphaelites, Schwabe's meticulous, analytic draftsmanship lends a definite meaning to each detail. Thus the flowers and plants he drew from nature at different stages of their life - their budding, blossoming, and withering - appear as so many symbolic correlatives of human existence. Haunted by the notions of virginal purity and death, Schwabe painted watercolours and oils whose cold tones and themes are strange indeed. His masterpiece is The Death of the Grave-Digger (1895), depicting an angel of death with long green scythe-like wings come to fetch an old man who is digging a grave. Nor is this the only picture in which Schwabe gave death a woman's features (those of his own wife); there is The Day of the Dead/Grief and The Wave, which, with hindsight, seems a premonition of the chaos of World War One, with its unfurling wave of screaming women's faces. The preliminary charcoal sketches for that disturbing work bear witness to the exceptional graphic gifts of this secretive painter who unhappily was unable to renew his art and wound up becoming a rather caricatural figure of the Symbolist artist trapped in an imagery - lilies and spiritlike figures - that was quickly outmoded after the turn of the century.
A selection of art exhibitions which have featured this
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