April 15th in German History: The Birth of Wilhelm Busch

Wilhelm Busch | German painter and poet | Britannica
Wilhelm Busch. Image Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

April 15th is the anniversary of yet another lesser known event in German history. On April 15th, 1832, Wilhelm Busch was born. Wilhelm Busch was a German poet and illustrator who published comic versions of cautionary tales. Busch was born in Wiedensahl and was the oldest of seven children. However, he was educated in a school far away from his parents and so only saw his father three times a year when he visited and he did not see his mother for years at a time. Nevertheless, he received a good education and went on to study mechanical engineering for four years. He disliked this area of study though, and was able to convince his father to send him to art school in Antwerp instead. He, however, dropped out of art school and moved back to Wiedensahl. Busch’s initial works went mostly unpublished, but eventually he found employment producing articles and illustrations for a newspaper. His most successful work, Max and Mortiz, was published in the 1860s. It sold 430,000 copies by Busch’s death in 1908. Busch’s primary form of illustration was wood engraving, although later in life he used Zincography. Busch’s work, although successful, was sometimes banned due to its satirizing of traditional morals and use of figures of speech. Busch was able to visit his family more as a result of his economic success, and he met his brother Otto for the first time in 1867. Unfortunately, Busch developed a dependence on alcohol that would last for the rest of his life. This, along with his heavy smoking, contributed to a deterioration of his health and possibly his mental state. Many of his biographers also blame the deterioration of his mental health on the fact that he never married. Busch spent his later years living with various family members and engaging in correspondences with artists and philosophers in other countries. He continued to write and paint through the 1880s, but became more isolated in his house, refusing to receive visitors and only interacting with some family members. He stopped painting in 1896 when he began to need glasses but continued to write poems until 1899. Busch died in 1908, possibly of heart complications.

Busch’s work influenced later comic artists and poets. Even while he was still alive his work Max and Mortiz inspired the creation of the comic The Katzenjammer Kids in the US. He has a prize and a museum dedicated to him, both of which maintain his legacy. To some extent he even still remains in the popular consciousness, at least in Germany, where the 175th anniversary of his birth was celebrated in 2007. Wilhelm Busch, the influential artist who succumbed to alcohol in his waning years, is similar to many artists both past and present in that his artistic genius was coupled with mental instability. That he is still remembered shows just how persistent art can be in the public memory, perhaps suggesting that the work of modern artists will not be so quickly forgotten as they fade from the spotlight.

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