In a Roman Osteria in brief
- The picture was commissioned by the merchant Moritz G. Melchior. Melchior wanted a painting that resembled Wilhelm Marstrand’s 1848 osteria scene.
- In the background of the picture, the patron Melchior talks with two of his friends. The figure with his back to the viewer is Carl Bloch.
- The picture is one of Bloch’s most popular genre scenes and characteristic of his seductive ability to portray things in a realistic manner.
A popular genre picture
As is often the case in Bloch’s work, knives and forks are brandished rather freely. Note in particular how the phallic decanter to the left may be close to an inviting mouth with slightly parted lips, but is equally – and unpleasantly – close to a knife and a fork with only two large prongs considerably more pointed than those of the young man’s fork.
In a Roman Osteria is an intensified version of a painting by one of Bloch’s major predecessors, Wilhelm Marstrand (1810-1873); specifically his charming Italian Osteria Scene from 1848 (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek). It is one of Bloch’s most popular genre pictures and is typical of his seductive ability to depict objects, details, and clothes with striking realism.
Wilhelm Marstrand, Italian Osteria Scene. 1848. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
Within Bloch’s body of work, the genre pictures constituted a break from the many commissions from the Danish Establishment. Friars with toothaches, monks plucking chickens, coarse fishwives, and children hunting innocent ducks were among his favourite subjects. These pictures were usually very amusing, but also often rather strange and very much open to interpretation.
Speaking to the senses
Bloch usually speaks to or engages several senses at once. This osteria scene, however, focuses primarily on vision. Additional views reflected in the glassware, and a warm palette accented in gold and red, render the painting dramatic and intense. Everyday scenes become more theatrical with an element of danger.
In his recent analysis, Associate Professor Jens Toft observes that sight is always mediated in Bloch’s paintings. Figures look at the subject – and us – through windows, and many details are revealed through glass or fabric. Bloch draws attention to the viewer by incorporating the act of looking as a distinct layer in his pictures.
Carl Bloch executed In a Roman Osteria at the request of merchant Moritz G. Melchior. Melchior wanted a painting that resembled Wilhelm Marstrand’s tavern picture, which currently hangs at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Exotic Italian scenes became fashionable among the Copenhagen bourgeoisie, who also purchased the pictures as souvenirs commemorating their southerly travels.
The patron Melchior sits at the table in the background of the picture, between two of his friends. A photograph taken of Melchior’s apartment on Højbro Square in Copenhagen shows the painting hanging prominently over the couch in the living room.
Photografy of Melchior's livingroom by I.B. Melchior, 1868, Det Kongelige Bibliotek
H. C. Andersen, who was a good friend of both Melchior and Bloch, drank a toast to the recently hung picture in 1866. The picture entered the National Gallery of Denmark’s collection as a bequest of M. G. Melchior in 1935.