Philipp Otto Runge

Philipp Otto Runge

Philipp Otto Runge was a proponent of German Romanticism together with Caspar David Friedrich. Runge worked both as a draftsman and a painter but he started late in his career. Even though such was the case, he still left a huge impact on Germany’s art history for being a great Romantic painter.

Runge was a feeble child but this did not stop him from developing a tremendous skill in the arts. His subject matters were often varied encompassing genre painting, religious and history. He had also developed the so-called color sphere, which he formed in 1807, with a goal to uncover the complete range of hues from just mixing three main colors such as blue, yellow, and red. However, his study on colors was cut short due to his premature death.

Although Runge had a short life on Earth, he was still able to produce some important works that shaped the Romantic painting style in Germany. A few examples include The Hulsenbeck Children, A Stalk of Lilies with Six Blooms (1808), Morning (1808), a self-portrait, and a series of designs for calendars.

Early Life

Philipp Otto Runge was born circa 1777 in a province in Northern Germany named Wolgast, Pomerania. His family was financially stable supporting ten children. His father was a successful business owner of a shipping firm. He was a friend to the ruling family of the province exposing them to various business opportunities, which provided them wealth.

However, the young Runge contracted an illness that slowed him down at school. It greatly affected his health that he had to miss his classes often times. On a lighter note, his absences allowed him to have time for developing his creative skills, one of which was to make cut-out silhouettes that he learned from his mother.

Early Training

1795 marked the beginning of his first apprenticeship as a merchant. He joined the company of his older sibling, Daniel, whose company was located at Hamburg. His brother also supported his formal art schooling at the Copenhagen Academy. There he met his primary mentor, Jens Juel who encouraged him to further his art studies by entering the Dresden Academy.

In 1799 he arrived at Dresden and befriended some notable artists there such as Ludwig Tieck and Caspar David Friedrich. His interest in classical literature and music resurfaced, which he first encountered in his primary school. Jakob Boehme, a 17th century musician, was his musical icon. Additionally, he also formed a valuable friendship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when he visited Weimar in 1803. The two artists clicked right the first few encounters they had because of their shared interest in art and color schemes.


Runge married his schoolmate at Dresden, Pauline Bassenge in 1804. The couple settled down in Hamsburg but the impending war due to the annexation of Napoleon threatened their lives there. Therefore, they had to seek refuge in Wolgast in 1805, which was the hometown of his parents. They remained there until 1807.


In 1807 Philipp Otto Runge moved back to Hamburg to start a new business venture with his older brother. This was his career debut albeit quite too late for his age. Around that year he began developing his ideas on color sphere and continued working on it until his death.

The color sphere also helped him intensify his coloring. He experimented with various colors which he consulted to Goethe. One of his first major commission was the publishing of local fairy tales titled The Almond Tree and The Fisherman and his Wife. He later worked on the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers.
By 1809, he came up with a manuscript for his Color Sphere which would be published in Hamburg one year later. However, he contracted tuberculosis in that same year which leveled down his productivity. As Runge dealt with the said illness, he painted his self-portrait which formally began his career in portraiture. He accepted portrait commissions, particularly the ones by his family and relatives.

Runge’s Subject and Composition

Runge was characterized as a mystical person by his peers and colleagues. It was probably because of his religious background, having raised by a Protestant family. The influence can be seen in his works as he tried to express his religious beliefs through painting.

In his works, he attempted to depict harmony and each color was symbolic. For example his proposed primary colors namely red, yellow and blue are supposed to symbolize the Christian Trinity. Blue represents God the Father, red for Jesus, and Yellow represents the Holy Spirit. Aside from painting he also tried to write poems and began planning on creating a series of paintings entitled The Times of the Day. The latter was said to be a design he proposed for a building that would house musical works and poem collections.

This is one of the factors that classified Runge as a Romantic artist, because he believed in the holistic approach of combining all arts and make them into one. And so he draw the designs for the Times of the Day on a large format suitable for engraving. There was no doubt about his solid dedication to this work for one could see it in the miniscule detail, outline, and the series of preparation he made for its publication-ready version. The series was published and it received enormous success in the commercial market.

After the Times of the Day, he painted a couple of versions of Morning, a landscape painting with religious theme. The success of his engravings cemented his reputation in the industry and some of his works are now being stored at Hamburg and other various museums.


Philipp Otto Runge died of tuberculosis on December 2, 1810, at the age of 33. Like William Blake he became much more popular after his death and much of it was attributed to his color sphere and perfect execution of drawing principles in the Times of the Day.