Peter Von Cornelius, a German painter, born in Dusseldorf, Sept. 16, 1787, died in Berlin, March 6, 1867. His father was inspector of the Dusseldorf gallery, since removed to Munich, and died in somewhat straitened circumstances when Cornelius was 16 years of age. His mother was advised to apprentice him to a goldsmith, but refused to take him from the Dusseldorf academy, where he was pursuing his studies, and he was soon able to contribute to the family support by illustrating almanacs and painting banners. At the age of 19 he received a commission to paint the cupola of the old church at Neuss with colossal figures in chiaroscuro. While at Frankfort in 1810 he commenced a series of illustrations to "Faust," which he dedicated to Goethe, and which are still considered among his most successful and original works. The following year he established himself at Rome, where, with the cooperation of Overbeck, Koch, Schnorr, Schadow, and others, he laid the foundation of a new German school. The artistic brotherhood occupied a part of the old . convent of St. Isidore, where they pursued their art with an intentness and exclusiveness which fixed upon them the attention of contemporary painters in Rome, and secured the sympathy of such men as Goethe, Schlegel, and Niebuhr. The revival of fresco painting was conceived to be the fittest means of carrying into effect their ideas, and Bartholdy, the Prussian consul general, initiated the movement by employing the leading artists of the new school to paint the walls of his villa.
Cornelius executed for him two frescoes, "Joseph interpreting the Dream of Pharaoh's Chief Butler," and "Joseph recognizing his Brethren," with so much success that he was commissioned by the marquis Massimi to decorate his villa with frescoes from the Divina Commedia of Dante. He advanced no further than the designs of these, which were afterward engraved by Schofer, having received an invitation from the crown prince of Bavaria to aid in the decoration of the Glypto-thek in Munich. Another of his most celebrated works executed at Rome was a series of designs illustrating the Nibelungenlied, the thoroughly national spirit of which has made them very popular in Germany. Cornelius left Rome in 1819, and having reorganized the Diisseldorf academy, of which he had been appointed director, commenced his labors on the Glyptothek, in which he was steadily employed, with the assistance of a band of pupils, for the next ten years. Two immense halls were appropriated to him, one of which, the hall of heroes, he illustrated with subjects from the Iliad, and the other with a series illustrating the whole Grecian mythology.
In both the figures are of colossal proportions, and in grandeur of general conception, in simplicity of arrangement, and in evidences of profound learning, the work is one of the most remarkable of modern times. During this period the general decoration of the corridors of the Pina-kothek was planned by Cornelius, although the designs for particuar parts and the direction of the whole were confided to Zimmermann and other artists, whom Cornelius, who had now become director of the Munich academy, had thoroughly imbued with his principles. Amid these employments he found time also to execute the frescoes in the Ludwigskirche, one of which, the "Last Judgment," 64 ft. by 30, is the largest picture in the world. In 1833 Cornelius left Munich, which under his influence and that of King Louis had become a great school of art, and resumed his labors in Rome. In 1838 he was elected a foreign member of the French institute, and in 1839 he went to Paris, where he was warmly welcomed by the Parisian artists. His reputation as the chief restorer of fresco painting led the British government to consult him with reference to the decoration of the new houses of parliament.
In 1841 he accepted an invitation from the king of Prussia to become director of the academy of Berlin, and to paint a portion of the frescoes in the Campo Santo. The cartoons of these are well known by the published plates, and that of the "Four Horsemen " of the Apocalypse is one of his most powerful and original creations. He was also employed to superintend the decoration of the Berlin museum, and furnished the design for the baptismal "Shield of Faith," presented by the king of Prussia to his godson the prince of Wales. In 1853 he began another design of the "Day of Judgment" for the apsis of the cathedral in Berlin, in preparing the cartoons for which he made repeated visits to Rome. In 1855 his cartoons received a medal of honor at the Paris exposition. His later years were passed at Berlin, where he was principally occupied with the paintings for the Campo Santo.