Outside of Germany, the Nazarene artists, who came to prominence in the early 19th century, are not well-known and yet some of their ideals prefigured similar philosophies of the famous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood a few decades later in England. Founded in 1809 by two German artists, Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) and Franz Pforr (1788-1812) and called the Lukasbund or Brotherhood of St. Luke dedicated to the patron saint of painters, their goal was to renew Christian art in the spirit of German Gothic and Italian quattrocento painting. In 1810, Overbeck and Pforr moved to Rome, where they took up residence in the abandoned cloister of Sant’Isidoro. Here, they attracted many of Germany’s most gifted artists, including Wilhelm von Schadow. Called the Nazarenes by their fellow Romans because of their Christ-like appearance and long hair, most of the group, including Wilhelm von Schadow, converted to Catholicism. In painting, their archetypes were Dürer, Pinturicchio, Perugino, Raphael, Fran Angelico, Masaccio and Michelangelo. Like their Renaissance predecessors, the Nazarene’s idea was to paint monumental frescoes in public buildings and cathedrals. In 1816, Overbeck together with von Schadow and other fellow Nazarenes decorated a room in the residence of the Prussian consul general in Rome, Jakob Salomon Bartholdy, who became a prime advocate of Nazarene philosophies and ideals. For Bartholdy’s reception room, they chose as their subject and in keeping with their Nazarene dogma, the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt.
Wilhelm von Schadow returned to Berlin in 1819. In 1829, he was appointed Director of the prestigious Düsseldorf Academy, a post he held until 1859. His early Nazarene days in Rome, with its focus on Christian art, gave way to his overseeing the rise of what would become known as the Düsseldorf School, with its emphasis on landscape and plein air painting. During his tenure, the Düsseldorf Academy became regarded as one of the most progressive art schools in Europe, attracting artists from all over Europe and America. Among von Schadow’s most famous American students were George Caleb Bingham, Eastman Johnson, William Morris Hunt and Emanuel Leutze. In a twist of fate, Albert Bierstadt applied but was not accepted.