Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

The Unknown Portrait of Beethoven as a Thirteen-Year-Old

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

The Unknown Portrait of Beethoven as a Thirteen-Year-Old

Article excerpt

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on Beethoven iconography at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich in 1989, I came across the typescript of an unpublished article, "Ein bisher unbekanntes Bildnis Ludwig van Beethovens aus seinem 13.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 Stehlin

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. …

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