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The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Johann Christian Brand (1722- 1795). The Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts – Vienna. 1769.

Matthew tells the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. Jesus said that the Kingdom of the Heavens was like a man who went out early in the day to hire workers for his vineyard. He promised one denarius for a day’s work. The man went again out at the third hour, hired more workers and sent them to the vineyard, promising them a fair wage. He did the same at the sixth hour and at the eleventh hour. In the evening, the owner of the vineyard ordered all the workers to be called in, to be paid. He told to start with the last arrived and to give one denarius to each labourer. Of course, the workers of the first hour grumbled because all received the same wage and they expected more than the ones that had come last and had worked less. One worker spoke out in this way. The owner however replied, ‘My friend, you received what we agreed to; so take your earnings and go off. I have all the right to give to each labourer as much as I paid you. Why should you be envious of me being generous? ‘ And the parable of Matthew finishes with the saying, ‘The last will be first and the first will be last’. G38

Johann Christian brand was a Viennese, so Austrian painter of the eighteenth century. His father was a landscape painter and Johann Christian treaded in his father’s footsteps. He came to some status in the artistic milieu of Vienna. He became a councillor and a professor of landscape painting at the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna. He also taught that art at the Viennese porcelain factory. Born in 1722, Brand died in 1795 in an era of splendour for the Austrian Empire. The Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna has many fine works of its artists because every new member of the Academy had to leave an entry painting to the Academy as a token of the membership. The ‘Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard’ was the entry piece of Johann Christian Brand to the Viennese Academy. It dates from 1769.

We see a picture in warm, orange-brown hues on the left and green hues on the right. The structure of the painting is in the traditional ‘open V’. To the left is a scene situated under the right diagonal. There we see the landowner giving his instructions, or maybe explaining to a grumbling labourer why he got paid in justice, as promised earlier. To the right upper corner rises the left diagonal over a tower that protects another farmhouse. Beneath that farm is the vineyard. Here we see soft tones and a diffuse light playing on the leaves of the vines. The landscape is indeterminate, but looks much like the countryside we might expect around Vienna. There is a soft plains and the vineyard is enclosed and not in arid but in lush terrain, since trees and bushes abound. The houses could be Austrian and are certainly not the buildings of rural Palestine. Vienna knew well about vineyards as its surrounding land was covered with them, suite close to the city gates. Up to our times, a suburb of Vienna is famous for its wine cellars and small farm houses now turned into wine bars called ‘heurigers’ and restaurants where the yearling, young Austrian wine is drunk. So Johann Christian brand used a theme from the Bible that must have been very sympathetic to every Viennese.

Although this is a Viennese scene, the landowner stands before his house dressed in the oriental way with a turban. The scene around the landowner is lively. We see cows and sheep, a labourer walking home wearing a pick over his shoulders. A woman enters the house and another one looks at her young child near the stairs. These women and the landowner as well as the labourer to whom he talks form a mass of colour that finds its balance in the animals and the man before them.

The light seems to come from the right, so it brightens the scene of the landowner. The colours are golden orange here, with an occasional white spot. The ground before the landowner is lit to a lighter orange that contrasts nicely with the lush green of the vineyard. The vineyard remains however more in the shadows of the farm and trees. Johann Christian brand showed his considerable skill in the marvellous way he depicted the trees on the left and the right. Although the direction is vertical, he bowed the high trees on the left so that the trees seem to move, to live, and thus they do not accentuate the verticality so much. In the hazy far we see a tower, as we can often find in paintings of the Italian countryside, in old Bamboccio pictures mad with nice landscapes and gentle scenes of everyday life. Paintings like this, of a calm, undisturbed, almost sweet pastoral life, were quite popular in the eighteenth century, also in Vienna.

Brand did not underscore the morality of the parable. He does seem to tell us something. The landowner points to the right and the labourer with the pick, even the cow in the middle, look to the vineyard where work is still going on. Exactly what the landowner is saying remains a mystery however and the denarii that are so important in Jesus’ parable are not shown. Landowner and labourer stand at rest in a picture without passion, of which the main theme is the vineyard. That was probably an aspect that Viennese Academicians of the second half of the eighteenth century preferred. The parable of the workers in the vineyard was a sub-theme of the real theme of this picture, which was the pastoral landscape and a gentle narrative of the Viennese countryside.

Johann Christian Brand was a good professional painter. Admire the way he painted the delicate clouds and also the golden touches on the leaves of the vineyard, in which we sense the eye and touch of Constable. The ‘Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard’ is a nice genre picture. We can look happily at this canvas. But it is a picture without much emotion, a smooth piece made without great ambition and strength. Yet, Johann Christian Brand made a piece of art that shows interesting handling of colour. Brand certainly knew how to bring a peaceful mood in the image. It is an image of a parable as the audience of Jesus might have had in their minds when Jesus started to tell his story. But more than this, we must imagine for whom this picture was made.

Imagine a Viennese evening and a hall lit with candles. The hall is filled with professors dressed in austere black dresses, having gathered to give honour to the new member of the venerable Vienna Academy. There may be small violin orchestra playing soft music. The entry painting of Brand stands in a corner and all the professors pass before the painting. They hold wine glasses in their hands of course, for such an occasion must be feasted. All chat and drink and they discuss art and gossip over the latest news of the empire. Imagine the pleasure of these professors to remark that Brand’s painting is on the subject of a vineyard, glorifying by a religious scene one of the most delicious pleasures of life: the white wine of Vienna. Brand pictured part of Vienna’s richness and such a sweet one, that cannot but be liked by everyone! Johann Christian Brand was not only a good professional. He was also smart and it is certainly with a wink that he delivered his ‘vineyard’ to the Academy and his colleagues.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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