Painting "Bathing Boys", ca. 1900, by Painter Johann Walter (1869–1932)
Johann Walter (also Jānis Valters, Johans Valters, Johann Walter-Kurau), one of the most brilliant colourists and admirers of Impressionism in Latvian art, was particularly interested in the play of light and reflections on water. A talented musician, he sought rhythm and harmony in painting as well, creating a sense of melodic lightness in his “Bathing Boys” (Peldētāji zēni) as well as in other water-themed paintings.
In “Bathing Boys”, the painter’s interest seems to lie in the fragile balance between the triangle formed by boys’ figures in the centre and right of the canvas, the moving reflection of the shore along its upper edge and the rippling of light to the left of the boys. Walter’s work is set apart from the happy noise in the treatment of similar scenes by Latvian Janis Rozentāls and German Max Liebermann, in its inwardness, which is emphasized by setting the figures against the light, bestowing them with a light, halo-like contours and thus making them part of the dance of reflections. The painting seems to radiate warmth, pulsating gentle life, and spirituality. Walter’s laconic, slightly abstract vision of nature has rendered this trinity of water, sunlight and young bodies into an impressive painterly vision, which, for several generations, has been among the best loved exhibits at the Latvian National Museum of Art.
The artist was born in the family of Jelgava (then Mitau) businessman and city councilman Teodors Valters and his Baltic German wife (born Kurau) as one of five children. After graduating from the local Realschule, Walter entered the St Petersburg Academy of Art and was active in the “Rūķis” group of Latvian artists, becoming its leader in 1892. “Rūķis” members participated in organizing the Latvian Ethnographic Exhibition in Rīga in 1896, in which Walter exhibited his works along with his study comrades.
In his art, Walter followed the ideas of the “Rūķis” group: to follow the latest international trends in depicting local subjects. After graduating from the Academy, he returned to Jelgava where, in addition to painting, he also taught, counting among his students such outstanding Latvian artists as Ģederts Eliass and Sigismunds Vidbergs.
After the death of his parents and the unrest caused by the revolution of 1905, and being shunned by some of the local artists and intellectuals – along with his colleague Vilhelms Purvītis, he did not put his signature on the widely supported petition to the Tsar for minimal civil rights – Walter moved to Dresden in 1906. From that point on, he severed ties to the Latvian artistic milieu and became a German artist Johann Walter-Kurau, holding one-man exhibitions and participating in group exhibitions in Dresden, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Karlsruhe, Königsberg, Munich, Rome, and elsewhere, as well as teaching and honing his skills as a violinist.
Walter died and was buried in Berlin in 1932.
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Zwischen Baltikum und Berlin: der Maler Johann Walter-Kurau (1869-1932) als Künstler und Lehrer = Starp Baltiju un Berlīni: gleznotājs Johans Valters-Kūravs (1869-1932) kā mākslinieks un skolotājs = Между Балтикой и Берлином: художник Иоганн Вальтер-Курау (1869-1932) как живописец и педагог. (2009). Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag.