Frederick William IV, who ruled Prussia from 1840 to 1861, was an avid doodler. “Unbelievable is his genius for drawing,” philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart wrote of the ruler in 1810. “Every idle moment ... he draws on paper; sketches for great historic pieces … persons and things that he has seen while traveling, mythical beings and allegorical matters.”
He left behind a massive archive of his artistic endeavors, and a new visualization project from Potsdam University in Germany makes it easy to flip through them. The project, Past Visions, is organized chronologically along a timeline, so you can see how Frederick’s style and subjects evolved over his life. The timeline also has historic reference points to indicate what else was going on in Europe at the time Frederick was drawing.
The contextual background information about the pieces is only in German, but you can copy it into Google Translate and get a vague idea. Subject tags allow you to search for drawings of a particular type, like landscapes or architectural sketches or even “squiggles.”
Frederick didn’t draw all that many female figures, for instance, but he did draw the view of the Berlin Cathedral from the nearby Lustgarten park exhaustively throughout his life. In 1812, he was very into drawing illustrations to the novels he was reading. The header image above is one of many he drew based on the popular Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.
If Frederick William hadn’t inherited the throne, he could have been a successful and prolific artist, but once he became king in 1840, he had bigger matters to attend to—an attempted assassination, the Revolutions of 1848, etc.—and his artistic output declined. He did keep drawing through 1858, just before a series of strokes left him incapacitated.
All images courtesy Past Visions
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