While working on Beethoven iconography at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich in 1989, I came across the typescript of an unpublished article, "Ein bisher unbekanntes Bildnis Ludwig van Beethovens aus seinem 13. Lebensjahr," written ca. 1976 by the Swiss musicologist Samuel Geiser. Known for his book Beethoven und die Schweiz: zum 150. Todestag Beethovens (Zurich and Stuttgart: Rotapfel, 1976), Geiser has devoted himself for many years to a study of Beethoven's portraits. Now in failing health, he has allowed me to translate and edit this article, which appears here in a revised, somewhat condensed form. (The footnotes are my own; other additions to and clarifications of Geiser's text are given in square brackets.) The portrait in question (reproduced in its overpainted and original forms as, respectively. Figures 1 and 2, pp. 64 and 65) is reproduced in color in H.C. Robbins Landon's hook Beethoven: Sein Leben und seine Welt in zeitgenössischen Bildern und Texten (Zurich: Universal Edition, 1974), p. 6, and in the English translation, Beethoven: A Documentary Study (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974; New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 6.
- Rita Steblin
In March 1952, at an auction sale at the Eduard Hünerherg Kunstauktionshaus in Braunschweig, a portrait was listed with the following description:
"Bonner Meister um 1783 - Ludwig van Beethoven. Brustbild als 13-jähriger, Oel auf Leinwand, H. 17, B. 22 cm. Broncierter Rahmen. Auf der Leinwand in der Schrift der Zeit: L.H. Beethoven. I[m]. XIII. Jahr. Geschenk Beethovens an Baron v. Smeskal."
["Bonn Master ca. 1783 - Ludwig van Beethoven. Half-length portrait as a 13-year-old, oil on canvas, 17x22 cm. Bronzed frame. Inscribed on the back of the canvas in a hand of the time: L.H. Beethoven. In his 13th year. Gift of Beethoven to Baron von Zmeskall."]
[The portrait was purchased by Dr. Hartwig Schmidt ( 1907-1978) of Hannover, and it is his story that Geiser tells here.1] The purchaser was extremely impressed by the ingenious expression and the similarity between the child's face and Beethoven's. He did not take part in the auction itself, assuming that he could not afford to buy such an item; hut upon learning from the auction house director that the portrait remained unsold at the end of the sale, he was able to acquire it for a modest sum. These auctions were frequented by dealers in furniture, carpets, china, and artworks, not by music lovers (let alone Beethoven experts). This would appear to explain how such a treasure could have been overlooked.
The portrait was poorly kept in an old, very damaged bronze frame. On the lower edge of the frame was found a rough old piece of wood, attached by two common nails, with the inscription in India ink: "Ludw. van Beethoven 13 Jahre alt." The tenterframe was extensively damaged by woodworms; on its lower crosspiece is written: "Besitz Baron v. Smeskall." On the back of the canvas is the inscription "L. v. Beethoven / i. XIII. Jahr." In the upper right corner of the portrait side the barely visible name "L. v. Beethoven" appears yet again.
The owner revered and preserved the portrait in its original state, knowing that one day it would have to be made accessible to the public. The approach of the anniversary year 1970 served as the incentive for further action. Thus, in 1968, an attempt was made to establish conclusively that the young boy in the portrait really was Beethoven. Color photos were sent to the Beethoven-Archiv in Bonn. The initial reaction was one of skepticism, though it was agreed that the original portrait should be brought in for examination. On the occasion of a personal visit to Bonn, the owner was treated in a downright disturbing and unfriendly manner [eine geradezu ängstlich abweisende Ablehnung], even concerning the mere attempt to discuss the portrait's originality. The director of the Archiv argued exclusively that he suspected a forgery, or false attribution, in that nothing was previously known about the existence of this portrait.
Determined to pursue the matter further, the owner approached art experts, who verified that the portrait did indeed date from the end of the eighteenth century, but who were unable to give any judgement about the similarity between the boy and Beethoven. Such a judgement would have to he sought from an expert in Beethoven iconography. This person was found in Dr. Franz Glück, former director of the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, who in fact gave decisive direction to further progress in this matter.2
Dr. Glück's impression was that the portrait resembled a ten-year-old boy more than it did a thirteen-year-old. He recognized considerable retouching of the mouth and chin, as well as the fact that the inscription "Ludwig v. Beethoven" in the upper right corner of the portrait side had been added at a later date. On Dr. Glück's advice, the portrait was restored [in 1970] by Franz Leissner at the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien. Leissner was able to confirm Dr. Glück's opinions in every respect. Dr. Glück's efforts to find any kind of reference to the prior existence of this portrait-as, for example, in the correspondence between Beethoven and Zmeskall-were fruitless. To date no historical evidence has turned up indicating that a portrait was painted of Beethoven in his thirteenth year, or that this portrait was once in the possession of Baron von Zmeskall, other than the attribution on the frame. In addition, there is the lack of any kind of portrait of the young Beethoven that could serve as a comparison. The simple silhouette [by Josef Neesen] of the composer as a sixteen-year-old, first published in 1838, is of little help. (Beethoven is depicted there wearing a pigtail.3) Because of the historical uncertainty and the lack of comparison material, Dr. Glück wished to refrain from passing scholarly judgement on this matter, and left it to the intuitive desire of the owner to convince the public of the authenticity of this portrait.
The obligation remained to prove the identity or falsity of this representation of Beethoven. According to Eduard Hünerberg, the very experienced director of the auction house in Braunschweig, a forgery seemed out of the question since art forgers only concern themselves with objects that have the promise of a high profit. This could be envisioned for a painting of the adult Beethoven, perhaps under the title "Rediscovery of a Lost Beethoven Portrait." But a portrait of the composer as a child would not have been considered of great value during his lifetime, or shortly thereafter, and is only of significance to us today because we find everything that once touched the great genius Beethoven to be interesting and precious. Thus, we could conclude that the present century is the best time in which to falsity such a portrait, in order to create a sensation. Since the portrait itself stems from the late eighteenth century, the only possibility would he for someone to have taken a portait of another boy of the period and falsified the attributions. But who did this, and for what gain?
Hünerberg determined that the portrait had been put up for sale in 1952 by a Dr. W. Klamann-Parlo, 8031 Steinbach/Wörthsee. Further inquiries revealed that this man died in 1966, and that his heiress knew only that he had come from Silesia and that his hobby was collecting works of art. This former owner auctioned off the child's portrait tor an insignificant sum about fifteen years before his death, which proves that he had neither a strong inner attachment to the portrait-as music historian or Beethoven enthusiast-nor an interest in financial gain. It is assumed that he would have had more interest in money if he had earlier acquired the painting at a high price from a forger. The fact that the portrait attracted no attention at the auction, and then remained unannounced with Dr. Schmidt for fifteen years, [followed now by a further fifteen years since his death,] suggests that this portrait could very well have been in seclusion for two centuries.
Of course, the inscriptions on the frame and on the back of the canvas, although "in a hand of the time," could have been added at a later date. But who would have done this, perhaps fifty or a hundred years ago, in an effort to falsify a portrait that was thought to resemble the young Beethoven, without bringing it to the public's attention in order to reap financial gain? An abstruse idea! And what about the inscription "L. v. Beethoven" in the upper right corner of the painting itself? According to the restorer, this was probably added at the same time as the retouching of the mouth and chin. Before the restoration, the portrait was examined under ultraviolet lights at the Österreichische Galerie at the Belvedere in Vienna and no other overpainting was found.
Actually, the overpainting of the original is very important for the fate and judgement of this portrait. Why were the original mouth and chin altered, and the name of Beethoven added? Was it done to falsify another child's portrait, to make it look more like Beethoven? One needs only to compare the "before" and "after" photographs (see, respectively, Figures 1 and 2) to recognize that the retouching was not done to make the child more similar to Beethoven, but rather to make him prettier, more attractive, in keeping with the fashion of the time. The strict realism of photography was not yet known, and artists in general tried to beautify their subjects.4 The nature of the overpainting makes Beethoven's mouth very similar to the shapely rosebud mouth as depicted in the idealized portrait of about 1804 or 1805 by Willibrord Mähler, which shows Beethoven with a lyre and which hung in the composer's rooms until his death.5 [This "rosebud" mouth is also apparent in the beautiful portrait by Christian Hornemann: the miniature portrait on ivory, signed and dated 1803, that Beethoven gave as a gift in 1804 to his childhood friend Stephan von Breuning; see the reproduction on p. 77.6] The original form of the mouth shows a slightly protruding lower lip [which is also seen in such later portraits as the Louis Letronne pencil drawing of 18147 and in Joseph Stieler's oil painting of 1820]. The tight compression of the lips as found in Franz Klein's life-mask of 1812, and in the many busts and portraits based on this mask, is a somewhat unnatural expression in that Beethoven was afraid of suffocating under the weight of the wet plaster. A first attempt to take an impression failed when Beethoven ripped off the plaster. [The closest form of the lips to that of the child's portrait is in fact found in the death mask.] The overpainting must have taken place very early on, most likely at the time the portrait was given to Zmeskall. [This close friend of the composer, who worked as court secretary in the Hungarian Chancellory in Vienna, usually took the trouble of adding the date to the numerous notes and letters that he received from Beethoven. A similar motivation-to identify the portrait for posterity's sake-may have caused him to add the front and back inscriptions. Perhaps he had admired the look of Beethoven's mouth in the Hornemann and Mähler portraits and thus had the original mouth changed to this form.] Who would have had the idea later, after Beethoven's death, to alter a portrait of him as a child? A "forger" surely would have only added the name "Beethoven" and would not have courted suspicion by changing Beethoven's true features in this manner.
It is wrong to argue that this could not possibly be an authentic portrait of Beethoven because there is no record of it in the literature. According to the inscription on the back, this portrait was a gift to Zmeskall. Beethoven may have simply presented it to his long-standing friend without any written record [-perhaps in return for the many gifts (including writing quills, wine, shirt material, a mirror, and a watch) that he had received from Zmeskall. Perhaps this portrait was mentioned in Zmeskall's diary, which was to have served as the basis for a biography, but which is missing. Is this journal, which was given upon Zmeskall's death in 1833 to Joseph von Sonnleithner, head of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, really gone forever?9 Perhaps it will turn up one day in the same mysterious fashion as this portrait. What a find that would be!)
[The recent discovery of another Beethoven portrait, also with a possible connection to Zmeskall, gives rise to hope.10 It was known, from one of Beethoven's letters (given the date "fall of 1819" by Donald MacArdle and Ludwig Misch), that Zmeskall had commissioned an artist to make a drawing of the composer's face.11 This showed Zmeskall's interest in owning a portrait of Beethoven as an adult. Until the 1987 discovery of Josef Hochenecker's pencil drawing of Beethoven, dated 1819, none of the known portraits could be matched with Zmeskall's request. Although Hochenecker's portrait was used as the model for Joseph Kriehuber's "well-known" black necktie lithograph, published by Tobias Haslinger in 1832,12 there is no independent record of it in the "literature." Yet, someone must have known about the existence of this portrait. Haslinger, perhaps?]
It is wrong to assume that we already know everything about a great man. There are several portraits of Beethoven which were once known to exist (including the large oil painting by August von Kloeber, which included Beethoven's nephew Karl sleeping under a tree) and which are now lost. Does this mean that these portraits are truly gone, or are we too blind or too suspicious of forgeries to recognize their existence somewhere? Although H.C. Robbins Landon wrote in the foreword to his large 1970 iconographical work Beethoven: A Documentary Study, "of Beethoven himself, it was not expected that we could discover any new portraits,"13 [he was happy to report the discovery of the oil portrait of Beethoven as a thirteen-year-old, and reproduce it in color, in the introduction to the abridged English and American editions (1974 and 1975, respectively) of his documentary study. Thus he was convinced of its authenticity.]
Beethoven was certainly famous enough as a child to warrant such a portrait. He had already appeared in a concert in Cologne as a seven-year-old, performing various keyboard concertos and trios, and his first publication, Nine Variations on a March by Dressier in C Minor (WoO 63), was engraved at Mannheim in 1782.14 As an eleven-year-old he was already serving as assistant court organist and in 1783 Cramer's Magazin der Musik published a biographical account praising his musical accomplishments. [It should be mentioned here that Beethoven believed that his birthday was December 16, 1772, and in the accounts of his childhood the age given is usually two years too young. This must mean that in the portrait of him "as a thirteen-year-old" he was really fifteen. Although he looks too young for this age, it must be remembered that, owing to poor nutrition, children matured at a much older age than today. (Often a boy's voice did not change until he was seventeen or older.) Because of the discrepancy in dates, this portrait was probably painted ca. 1785, when Beethoven thought he was thirteen. This was after the elector Max Franz took office, at which time Beethoven was made a salaried employee at court. According to Franz Wegeler, Beethoven wrote three piano quartets at this time, the original manuscript of which bore the title "Trois Quatuors pour le Clavecin, Violino, Viola e Basso. 1785. Composé par Luis van Beethoven, agé 13 ans."15]
Who painted this portrait, or how it was commissioned and paid for, is not known. In the days before photography, there were many amateurs who possessed skill at painting and such portraiture was not uncommon. In fact, it is somewhat surprising, considering Beethoven's accomplishments as a child, that this is the first such portrait of him to surface. One may speculate that the portrait was kept by the composer's mother, and that upon her death in 1787, when Beethoven returned from Vienna to he at her bedside, he took possession of it and eventually brought it to Vienna when he made his final home there in 1792.
What did the child Beethoven look like? [In the Fischer manuscript he is described as "short of stature, broad shoulders, short neck, large head, round nose, dark brown complexion; he always bent forward slightly when he walked. In the house he was called der Spagnol (the Spaniard)."16 The short neck, large head, round nose, and olive complexion are clearly depicted in the portrait, and the large brown eyes may have led to the nickname "the Spaniard."] The hair is lighter in color than in the adult portraits, but this is quite natural since hair color darkens with age. [The slight indentation in the hairline is also evident in the newly discovered Hochenecker portrait of 1819 and in the Letronne, Heckel, and Waldmüller portraits.] The hone structure and facial features are remarkably similar to those documented in the life mask (with the exception of the mouth, for the reasons discussed above). [The clothing, especially the large white collar and the gold-colored waistcoat, is reminiscent of Flemish portraits of the late eighteenth century.17]
The most striking feature of this portrait, however, is the expression on the child's face. This is truly startling, unsettling, and very moving, especially because of the dominant effect of the penetrating gaze directed at the viewer. The mouth, in its original form, has a serious, worldly-wise stamp to it. This is a child aware of his talent, determined to make his mark in life. How else to describe this self-possessed look than as that of the naked face of genius? Whoever is moved by this look, especially if he is familiar with all the other Beethoven portraits, will no longer ask for further historical proof, but will recognize that this portrait depicts the full genius of Beethoven in its purest form.
[We can only be grateful to Hartwig Schmidt for his firm belief in the authenticity of this portrait and for his perseverance in pursuing the truth in the face of such hostile treatment from the "experts." He has rescued a lost Beethoven treasure and we are all the richer for it.]
Publication Information: Article Title: The Unknown Portrait of Beethoven as a Thirteen-year-old. Contributors: Samuel Geiser - author. Journal Title: The Beethoven Newsletter. Volume: 6. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 1991. Page Number: 57+. © 1991 San Jose State University & The Trustees of the California State University. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.