February 14, 2019

Looking for Mozart: The Mozart Portrait by Barbara Krafft

The posthumous portrait of W.A. Mozart by the artist Barbara Krafft (1764-1825) is beyond reasonable doubt the most recognisable as Mozart in the popular imagination; certainly it formed the basis for the Mozart brand industry – complete with its confectionary – variations of it are the familiar ‘face’ of Mozart that greets us in the shop windows of Salzburg, Vienna and Prague – cities of course, which are strongly connected with the composer’s life. But what of the artist who created this most instant of images? Barbara Krafft – perhaps pleasantly, given the importance of Prague in Mozart’s life and the high sophistication of its musical public – was born not in Austria, but what is today, the Czech Republic.

Mozart portrate
Portrait of W. A. Mozart by Barbara Krafft [Barbara Krafft, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons].
Portraits of Mozart are in a way, symbolic of the composer’s enigmatic and elusive life, as if we are permitted an occasional glimpse of the man’s face amidst all his music – a man whose lifetime was perennially itinerant, as is well demonstrated in the close of one of his scribbled notes to his wife Constanze, headed Prague, 31 May 1789: ‘In haste’. The Krafft painting is unlike the most realistic portraits of him, such as the engraving by Dorothea Stock, made in Dresden (1789) or the poignant painting by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange, which is incomplete and which Constanze regarded as most like her husband. Even the pictures of Mozart could seem to us to add to the mythology surrounding his death, as the Stock engraving’s original has vanished, like the exact site of Mozart’s grave. The Lange portrait remained a work in progress – reminding us perhaps of Mozart’s Verzeichnis Aller Meiner Werke, or thematic catalogue of his own works, kept from February 1784 until shortly before his death, with so many future pages left empty. While this is the reality for us, we must, of course, remember that this is a historical conclusion reached solely through hindsight. The happier truth was that when Mozart sat down to make entries in his thematic catalogue, he intended to fill many of the pages which were later left empty, just as the Joseph Lange portrait was painted to be finished and as Mozart’s life had all the appearances of not being cut short when it was. The fact that both the thematic catalogue and the portrait remain incomplete is a fitting reminder that with Mozart, much will always be missing. This then, adds to the myth.

The Krafft portrait was painted by Barbara Krafft in 1819. The original was listed as kept in Vienna by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde [Society of the Friends of Music], (Volkmar Braunbehrens & Karl-Heinz Jürgens, Mozart: Lebensbilder, 136). This winning painting of the young Mozart was painted therefore nearly thirty years after his death and yet has become more iconic for us than the images made of him during his lifetime that at least captured something of his presence in the paint. Barbara Krafft clearly based her portrait to some extent upon the figure of Mozart in the painting of 1780 by the artist Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1780/81), today at the Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum, in Salzburg. In this well-known portrait, Mozart sits playing a duet with his sister, Maria Anna ‘Nannerl’ Mozart at the piano, while their father, Leopold Mozart, holds a violin. The mother, Maria Anna – who died in Paris in 1778 – is depicted on the wall as an oval portrait on the wall in the background.

Interestingly, the foundations of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde were laid by the secretary of the Gesellschaft Adeliger Frauen, Joseph Sonnleithner, who gathered signatures for support and encouraged the Society’s formation in 1812. According to Otto Erich Deutsch’s documentary biography of Mozart, it was Sonnleithner who commissioned Barbara Krafft with the painting of this portrait in 1819, as part of which Krafft visited Mozart’s sister Maria Anna ‘Nannerl’, who showed the artist three portraits of Mozart which she personally owned. Nannerl Mozart was an elderly woman, blind and confined to her bed in late 1820s Salzburg, living in an apartment on the third floor of the Haffnergasse, overlooking the back of the famous Mozart house in the Getreidegasse. (Jane Glover, Mozart’s Women, 3). When two English visitors, Vincent and Mary Novello, met Mozart’s widow Constanze in Salzburg, they noticed Mozart portraits on the walls, including the haunting, unfinished Lange portrait and the Mozart family portrait, which ‘contain[ed] Mozart and his sister playing a Duett with the father sitting down and the Mother’s portrait in a picture frame…’ as Vincent Novello recorded. (cit., Glover, 354). This is the same family portrait on which the Krafft picture is presumably based. The Novellos also visited Nannerl Mozart and found her walls full of family portraits. Nannerl had only gone blind in 1826 (Glover, 357) but if Krafft did visit her in 1819, she would still have been able to see and show the artist portraits which featured her brother. The Novellos noted that Nannerl Mozart also had paintings by Van Dyke and Rembrandt in her possession. (Ibid, 359).

Nannerl died on 10 October 1829, a little over two months after the visit from Vincent and Mary Novello. Constanze died thirteen years later, on 6 March 1842. Therefore, if Krafft did see the Mozart family portrait by Della Croce – almost certainly that described by Vincent Novello when he visited Constanze in 1829 – it may not have been among those pictures supposed to have been shown Barbara Krafft by Nannerl Mozart, which the latter owned. This does not quite explain, however, how this picture of the Mozart family – which Barbara Kraft must have surely seen and which the figure of Mozart so closely resembles – was listed by the Novellos as being with Constanze in 1829 and not with Nannerl Mozart. Perhaps significantly, Nannerl Mozart did show the Novellos her ‘instrument on which she had often played Duetts with her Brother’. (cit., Glover, 359). This may mean that Nannerl Mozart showed the Novellos the very piano on which she is depicted as playing the duet with Mozart in the Della Croce portrait. Krafft alternatively, could also, of course, have visited Constanze. Or perhaps, there was at least another version of the Della Croce painting, which has vanished, which Nannerl owned as a copy.

Barbara Krafft
Barbara Krafft, Self portrait of herself. [Barbara Krafft, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
So, who was Barbara Krafft and why was she chosen to paint Mozart, so long after his death? Barbara, in fact, had paint in her blood. She was the daughter of the highly acclaimed portraitist Johann Steiner (1725-1793), and she exhibited in Vienna. She painted many portraits in Moravia and in Prague in the 1780s – around the time that the Della Croce painting was made – and executed many portraits in Salzburg between 1803 and 1821; she was thus well placed to be able to make contact with Nannerl Mozart, who had returned to Salzburg on the death of her husband.

Two years after the famous Mozart portrait was completed, Barbara Krafft moved to Bamberg in Bavarian Franconia, where she spent the last four years of her richly creative life. She is said to have executed some one hundred and forty portraits during this period, an astounding output – not unlike Mozart’s enormous musical energy – if true. Barbara died in Bamberg in 1825. Bamberg’s Kunstverein and Staatsbibliothek held a retrospective exhibition on Barbara Krafft in the magnificent Neue Residenz in March 1976.

What also then, of her Czech connection? Barbara was born in Jihlava in 1764, the year that the Mozart family were in London as part of the great European tour (June 1763 – November 1766). Jihlava had also been the birthplace of her father, Johann Steiner, in 1725; situated on the old border between Moravia and Bohemia, this same Czech Jihlava became the childhood town of the Austro-Bohemian composer, Gustav Mahler.

It is a curious fact that the Mozart brand has a net worth of some five billion EUR; an apt illustration if any were needed, that Mozart the industry has evolved into a separate identity from Mozart the man and composer whose late letters to his fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg for example, demonstrate considerable financial struggle. The kitsch industry might be seen as a delayed response to over-compensate for our inability to truly recognise Mozart during his lifetime, an exercise in atonement. The Mozart image on many of the chocolate boxes probably only shares one fact with the historical Mozart, in that his 1790 opera buffa Cosi fan Tutte begins in a Neopolitan coffeehouse, an interesting take on the many Café Mozarts that have emerged on the central European map.

For many of us though, the Krafft portrait inspires immediate recognition as the face of Mozart. The portrait also captures I think, something of Mozart’s fascination for us. As he looks out at us, the other side of his face is partly bathed in shadow. The dark background, of course, illuminates Mozart as the central figure, but this too is emblematic of the myth and the man, shrouded in mystery. And there is no Mozart family around him, like in the Della Croce portrait, an accurate eclipse.

Like his portraits and like his ‘lost’ grave, I believe that through his music, we are perhaps, still looking for Mozart. Maybe this is what makes the Krafft portrait so important. For however we seek Mozart, this is the face that we probably think of first, as being behind his music.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

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