An almost completely reconstructed provenance chain: Fritz von Uhde’s “The Journey to Bethlehem"

Published on December 18, 2023

“The Journey to Bethlehem” belongs to Fritz von Uhde’s group of religious works, in which the artist takes Biblical themes involving scenes from “everyday life” and places them in a contemporary context.

The landscape motif presented here is based on plein-air studies executed by the artist near the Moorkolonie Augustenfeld in Dachau. Starting in 1888, Fritz von Uhde stayed and worked several times there, executing a number of sketches of the village road that leads through Augustenfeld to Schleißheim. On this frozen road, a shabbily dressed couple moves forwards, away from the observer, through a bleak, barren winter landscape towards a group of humble dwellings, from whose windows a few faint orange-coloured lights shine.
The couple is portrayed from the rear, their heads slightly turned in profile. The man supports the obviously heavily pregnant woman with his right arm. He carries a rucksack and over his left shoulder a saw, identifying him as a carpenter. The picture’s title and the saw as an attribute of Joseph the Carpenter identify the scene as part of the well-known Christmas story in the Gospel of St. Luke, in which Mary and Joseph search in vain for a place to stay in Bethlehem before the birth of their son Jesus.

Oil painting with golden frame
Fritz von Uhde, The Journey to Bethlehem, 1890, oil on canvas, 92 x 110 cm

The painting found its way into the Museum Wiesbaden’s collection in 1980 as a gift of Rose and Friedrich Klein. During research into its provenance, it was discovered that the work had been expropriated from the Rudolf Mosse collection in Berlin as a result of National Socialist persecution. After its restitution, in agreement with the community of Felicia and Rudolf Mosse’s heirs and with the support of the Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States, the Ernst von Siemens Foundation for the Arts, and the Cultural Foundation of Hesse, at the beginning of September 2017 Uhde’s painting was purchased for the Museum Wiesbaden.

Inquiries into the painting’s provenance were initially prompted by an inscription on the back of the picture: “Mosse Leipzigerpl. 15”, a reference to the famous collection of the Berlin publisher and art collector Rudolf Mosse. Further research conclusively confirmed that the painting had belonged to the Mosse collection since 1890. As emerges from an exchange of letters between Fritz von Uhde (1848 -1911) and Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920), in 1890 the collector commissioned a version of von Uhde’s painting “The Difficult Journey”, acquired by Prince Regent Luitpold for the Munich Pinakothek that same year, directly from the artist. In a letter of 28.12.1890, Fritz von Uhde informed Rudolf Mosse that the painting had been dispatched to Berlin: (…) “Two days ago, the picture commissioned from me—a free rendering of my picture in the Pinakothek here—was sent by the gilders Barth & Compagnie, who made the frame, directly to your address in Berlin.” This reference to the frame maker is confirmed by the seal of the Munich gilders branded onto the decorative frame.

Stamp on the back of the painting
Detail of the reverse (seal of Conrad Barth & Comp., Gilders, Munich)

From 1896 onwards, the painting is referred to several times in publications as belonging to the Rudolf Mosse collection. In 1912, for instance, the art critic and journalist Max Osborn (1870–1946) describes the art collection as “one of the greatest and most extensive German collections of recent art,” in which Uhde is represented by one of the most beautiful versions of a theme often treated by him, the “Journey to Bethlehem”. Every catalogue of the Rudolf Mosse art collection from 1908 onwards includes the painting. After Mosse died in 1920, his art collection, as well as his Berlin publishing empire, was inherited by his daughter Felicia (1888-1972) and her husband Hans Lachmann-Mosse (1885-1944).

Shortly after the National Socialists came to power, they liquidated the publishing house, that had been badly hit by the global economic crisis. At the same time, Rudolf Mosse’s descendants were subjected to antisemitic persecution. The family’s entire assets were placed under the control of the state and thus effectively confiscated. The regime also took possession of the family’s valuable art collection, which was auctioned off by the Berlin auction house of Rudolph Lepke on 29 May 1934. Fritz von Uhde’s “The Journey to Bethlehem” is listed in the auction catalogue as lot number 98 and was acquired by the Berlin commission agent Carl Braunstein (1887-??) for 7,700 Reichsmarks. In the spring of 1936, the painting is recorded as being in a Berlin Academy of the Arts jubilee exhibition entitled “German Painting from the Beginning of the 18th Century to the Present”. The accompanying exhibition catalogue states that the work is on loan from a “Dipl.-Ing. Klein, Stettin”.

Book page
Catalogue, Rudolph Lepke Art Auctions, Berlin: Rudolf Mosse Art Collection, Berlin, Berlin, No. 2075.1934
Excerpt from book with picture of building
Catalogue, Rudolph Lepke Art Auctions, Berlin: Rudolf Mosse Art Collection, Berlin, Berlin, No. 2075.1934
Book page with two pictures
Catalogue, Rudolph Lepke Art Auctions, Berlin: Rudolf Mosse Art Collection, Berlin, Berlin, No. 2075.1934

The auction catalog of the sale can be accessed digitally on the Heidelberg University Library websiteOpens in a new window.

For a long time afterwards, the painting disappeared from the public record—until it was donated to the Museum Wiesbaden by Rose and Friedrich Klein in 1980. It may be assumed that the entire time it had been in the private possession of Rose and Friedrich Klein, who had lived in Wiesbaden since 1957.

Miriam Olivia Merz