Johann Heinrich Baumann (1753–1832), painter and man of letters, was a talented, unique, powerful and independent personality. In over two centuries, he is the only artist given the nickname “painter of the hunt” (Jagd-Mahler) by his contemporaries, and we still know him by this moniker today.
Around fifty of Baumann’s paintings are kept in Latvia’s museums and private collections, a tiny proportion of the over 1,700 works once attributed to him; the rest have disappeared or were destroyed. Any conclusions drawn by researchers based on Baumann’s surviving works are merely assumptions, and ones with dubious veracity. Thankfully, his literary oeuvre, mainly written and published in the Latvian language, has fared better.
As with his paintings, information about Baumann’s life is incomplete and fragmentary, drawn from various sources. His 79 years were mainly spent in the Baltic. Born in the Duchy of Courland, he witnessed von Biron’s return home, the end of the duchy and the emancipation of the serfs in Courland (now Kurzeme) and Livonia (now Vidzeme). His was the age of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic war in Russia. A time of tremendous change. Intellectualising about human freedom, struggling for human freedom but, sadly, this struggle falling a long way short of true freedom. The culture of the epoch can be summarised in a simplistic yet apt formulation: from art destined for the palaces of emperors and dukes to art for ordinary, reasonably well-off citizens.
Baumann’s surviving works and those described in written sources indicate a wide range of genres – animal pictures, still lifes, portraits. Within the boundaries of every genre, Baumann always kept sight of his priorities.
Baumann’s literary career began in Koknese at the turn of the 19th century. He wrote in the Latvian language, and his works appeared both in the Latvian press and as separate publications.