Anton Graff was an eminent Swiss portrait artist. In 1753 he started studying painting at the art school of Johann Ulrich Schellenberg. After 3 years he left Winterthur for Augsburg. There he worked with the etcher Johann Jakob Haid. However, only one year later he was forced to leave Augsburg. He was too successful. The members of the local painters guild feared his competition. With a letter of recommendation of Johann Jakob Haid, he moved to Ansbach where he got an employment with the court painter Leonhard Schneider until 1759.
Graff travelled frequently to Munich to study the paintings in the different collections. In 1765 he went back to Winterthur and Zurich. It was there where he received the invitation of Christian Ludwig von Hagedorn, the newly appointed Director of the newly established Dresden Art Academy, to apply for a post at the Dresden Art Academy. To give Hagedorn an impression of his talent he sent a self-portrait to Dresden. It was so well received that only one day later Hagedorn worked out Graff’s employment contract. On April 7, 1766, Graff arrived in Dresden where he was appointed court painter and teacher for portrait painting at the Dresden Art Academy, a post he kept for life.
Graff did portraits of nearly 1,000 of his contemporaries and was the leading portrait painter in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th century. He was also the main portrait painter of German poets between the Enlightenment and the early Romantic periods. Many of them were also his friends, like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe whom he met in Dresden in 1768. Graff was the favourite portrait painter of the German, Russian, Polish and Baltic nobility. His most important clients among them were Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia. His portrait of Frederick the Great is regarded as his masterpiece even Frederick the Great never posed for him.
Graff was also very popular with the landed gentry, diplomats, musicians and scholars. He portrayed many of them. While painting a portrait, Graff always focused the light on the person’s face. In Graff’s portraits it was always the face that got the attention and the light, except when the sitter was a lady. In that case he also focused on the lady’s décolleté. Graff was a master of light and shadow. He also knew how to paint dresses and draperies of different materials and colours in a natural way. His role model in this field was the French court painter Hyacinthe Rigaud. In his early years, Graff did hardly ever paint any background details in his portraits. He usually kept the background monochrome. However, in his later years he also paid more attention to the background.
In his later years Graff turned to painting landscapes and developed further a sparkling manner of painting that anticipated Impressionism. Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich got influenced by his work. Graff was a sociable person. He cultivated friendships with many of his sitters, business partners and colleagues. He was a prolific artist. He painted some 2,000 paintings and drawings.
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