Johann Eleazer Zeisig, called Schenau from his birthplace of Groß-Schönau, now Velký Šenov in the northern Czech Republic, was born in 1737. His father, a weaver, recognized his talent for drawing and sent the twelve-year-old boy to Dresden for training. There, Schenau was apprenticed to the portrait painter Johann Christian Beßler. Eventually he came to the studio of the painter Charles-François de Silvestre, who was forced to return to France in 1756, taking Schenau with him. Settling in Paris, the twenty-year-old Schenau soon joined the group of German artists living there, one of whom, the printmaker Johann Georg Wille, became a pivotal figure in his life. Wille took the young artist under his wing, following his developing skills as well as introducing him to Christian Ludwig von Hagedorn, the future director of the Dresden Kunstakademie. Schenau met and studied with Chardin and Greuze as well, both of whom influenced his choice of genre and portrait painting as his first career.
In 1765, the German artist opened his own studio in Paris, supplying a ready market there until 1770. Hagedorn's call to Dresden had come two years earlier, but poor health had prevented travel. In 1773, Schenau received a major commission, the portrait of the Saxon princely family, and became director of the drawing and painting school at the Meissen porcelain manufactory. The following year he was named professor at the Dresden Kunstakademie. The artist's production soon followed this double path: at the same time as he produced light, charming scenes of children and lovers at Meissen, he created history paintings in a grand style for Dresden, like his reception-piece Priamus, Achilles and the body of Hector. Schenau became co-director of the Kunstakademie in 1776, sharing the post with Giovanni Battista Casanova until the latter's death in 1795. He gave up the Meissen directorship the following year. Never in good health, he died in 1806.
Schenau's self-portrait shows his technical ability in the extremely sensitive use of three chalks on brown paper. Manufactured to be darker than the tone of flesh, the paper provides a neutral background from which the figure emerges. The smoothness of the skin, blushed and highlighted in precise red and white chalk, contrasts with the hair and costume, where a variety of vigorous hatchings create volume. The inscription makes clear that the drawing is a self-portrait, being interpreted "Schenau himself drew himself, 1773."
The drawing may be related to a painting Schenau completed in 1773.(1) Entitled Das Kunstgespräch, it is, according to the diary of the printmaker Daniel Chodowiecki, simultaneously group portrait and allegory. At the table sit the patron Thomas, Freiherr von Fritsch and the Dresden Academy founder Christian Ludwig von Hagedorn, observed at left by Painting, Sculpture and Poetry in the persons of Adrian Zingg, Anton Graff and, in the center, Schenau himself.(2) A 1772 drawing of Schenau by Heinrich Füger now in Weimar,(3) clearly depicting the same sitter as in the Crocker drawing, has been proposed as the model for the central figure at left. Though the figure raises its index figure to the chin as in the painting, the costume is less formal and the hairstyle completely different. The Crocker drawing, while omitting the hand, is closer in shading and hairstyle to the figure in Das Kunstgespräch. While Schenau may have had reason to use a drawing by another artist as the basis of his self-portrait in the painting, it seems unlikely that he would have omitted to make his own drawing during his preparations. Though it is difficult to determine the exact relationship between painting and drawing, surely it is not coincidence that one of the artist's most sensitive drawings, posed similarly to the self-portrait in Das Kunstgespräch, should have been done at the same date.William Breazeale, in William Breazeale, with Cara Denison, Stacey Sell, and Freyda Spira, A Pioneering Collection: Master Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 2010
(1) Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, inv. no. 3161, see Harald Marx, "'...den guten Geschmack einzuführen.' Zum 250 Geburtstag von Johann Eleazar Zeissig, genannt Schenau," in Dresdner Kunstblätter, vol. XXXII, no. 1, 1988, pp. 10–18, at p. 11. The caption date is incorrect; the text includes the correct date of 1773.
(2) ibidem, p. 12
(3) Schloßmuseum inv. no. KK 512, repro. ibidem p. 14
Inscriptions: signed, lower right, black chalk: Schenau se ipse del. 1773
Provenance: Edwin Bryant Crocker, by 1871; gift of his widow Margaret to the Museum, 1885
Literature: William Breazeale, with Cara Denison, Stacey Sell, and Freyda Spira, A Pioneering Collection: Master Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 2010, no. 49; William Breazeale, "Old Masters in Old California: the Origins of the Drawings Collection at the Crocker Art Museum," in Master Drawings, vol. XLVI, no. 2, Summer 2008, p. 211; Thomas daCosta Kaufmann, Central European Drawings in the Collection of the Crocker Art Museum, Turnhout, 2004, pp. 161–62; Thomas daCosta Kaufmann, Central European Drawings 1680–1800, a Selection from American Collections, exh. cat. Princeton, 1989, no. 66; Master Drawings from Sacramento, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 1971, checklist p. 163; Ernst Scheyer, "Goethe and the Visual Arts," in The Art Quarterly, vol. XII, no. 144, 1949, no. 121