Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) was a German draftsman and genre painter. Genre painting is concerned with the realistic depiction of ordinary scenes from everyday life like family events, interiors, domestic scenes, parties, sporting activities, street scenes, markets, picnics, festivals, and tavern scenes. These paintings were popular with the middle class because of the subject matter and because the generally small scale of these paintings was appropriate for display in middle-class homes.
Spitzweg visited European art centers like Prague, Venice, Paris, London, Zurich, and Belgium, studying the works of other artists and refining his style, his drawing skills, and his painting techniques. Though he traveled widely, he was provincial in his choice of subjects, depicting the daily life of his native Munich in small, charming pictures in which he combines realism, fancy, and humor. His paintings reflect aspects of middle-class German life in the 19th century: people enjoying lively outdoor picnics, preparing meals, meeting family members at train stations, playing musical instruments, singing in courtyards, passing forbidden love letters, painting, and tending gardens.
In "The Poor Poet" (1839), original title "Der Arme Poet", Spitzweg depicts a writer living out the familiar image of the starving artist in wretched conditions in a small room in an attic. The painting contains many significant images. The poet writes while huddling under his bedcovers and wearing a tattered coat and nightcap. The writer has been burning some of his own work – most likely volumes I and II since volumes III and IV remain in bundles on the floor. The fire in the room has obviously gone out since the poet rests his hat on the cold stovepipe and no live coals are visible in the stove.
In the painting, the poet wears a cravat around his neck as if he is ready to go out. Cravats were an important piece of a man’s wardrobe. Walking sticks were important, too, like the cravat, as a way to dress up and lend a man a sense of individuality. The poor poet’s stick can be seen leaning against the wall on the left. The umbrella had been around for a while but this open umbrella may be Spitzweg’s artistic novelty since no one had painted the motif before. After the Paris revolution of 1830 the citizen king used an umbrella to show his closeness to the average citizen and it had become a symbol of populism. The top hat as well had become part of the standard dress for ordinary law-abiding citizens.