King Frederick II of Prussia did not wish to see any images of himself in his immediate environment. However, he had nothing against his likeness circulating around the world. This happened in many ways—during his lifetime and no less frequently until the start of the 20th century.These representations were always associated with interpretations and perceptions of the Prussian monarch that the time in question was supposed to and did record of him.
Friedrich der Große (1746) by Antoine PesneSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
How Frederick II (Frederick the Great, 1712–86) wanted to be seen after his first two wars, namely the First and Second Silesian War (1740–42 and 1744–45), is revealed in the 1746 painting by Antoine Pesnes. He is portrayed as a successful young ruler, general, and battle strategist.
The King gave the painting, on the anniversary of the victorious Battle of Hohenfriedberg (June 4, 1745), to the Count of Hochberg to thank him for his hospitality. At the time, Frederick the Great had dined with him and been his guest, watching soldiers march past with the battle standards of the defeated Saxons and Austrians on the bridge at Schloss Rohnstock.
Friedrich der Große (1763) by Johann Georg ZiesenisSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
At the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, Frederick the Great complained in his letters of how much weight he had lost and how thin, fragile, and gray he had become. However, the portrait sketch of the King from that year by Johann Georg Ziesenis, drawn from life, does not really confirm this. And the half-length portrait that emerged from this sketch also shows a well-fed and powerful-looking King. It contradicts the view of himself that Frederick wanted to project and is particularly significant for that reason.
Friedrich der Große in seiner Bibliothek (1769) by Anton Friedrich KönigSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
The painting by Anton Friedrich König reflects very nicely how Frederick the Great wanted to be seen during his lifetime, namely as an intellectual surrounded by the books in his library and as an author, historian, and philosopher. Anton Friedrich König took how the King wished to present himself to the public and gave it pictorial form.
Friedrich der Große zu Pferde (1777) by Daniel Nikolaus ChodowieckiSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
In 1777, Daniel Chodowiecki drew inspiration from the views of Johann Caspar Lavater and created a striking portrait of the aging King or Old Fritz. Frederick himself was not particularly pleased with Chodowiecki's miniature. He would certainly have changed his mind, however, had he known how readily the almost two-dimensional figure could serve as a kind of figurative mark and how it would result in his image being widely circulated in future.
Friedrich der Große (1781/1786) by Anton GraffSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
There is no record of whether Frederick liked Anton Graff's portrait—but he probably did. It shows a cerebral, energetic, and good-natured father of the nation. It was also reproduced on a mass scale through prints, making Frederick almost omnipresent. It was even ultimately shown on anniversary stamps. Even today, this painting is often the first impression people have of the King.
Friedrich der Große am Schreibtisch (about 1786) by Johann Heinrich Christian FrankeSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
Frederick the Great saw himself as a philosopher king, and Johann Heinrich Christian Franke promoted this image in all his portraits of the King. He shows the monarch in this vanitas painting—at his writing desk, of course—toward the end of his life. The large book, a metaphor for the King's life work, is closed.
Empfang des Herzogs von York in Sanssouci (about 1787) by Edward Francis CunninghamSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
Thanks to his long reign (1740–86), Frederick the Great became the elder statesmen among European monarchs. To have visited him in Potsdam or Berlin conferred a certain distinction. So Edward Francis Cunningham was asked to paint a picture to document the Duke of York's visit to the King. In this painting, the Duke is asking the King to look at some maps arranged on a chair. He wants to seek Frederick's advice on military matters. The King of Prussia, who died on August 17, 1786, would have been very happy with this representation.
Rückkehr Friedrich der Große aus dem Manöver (about 1784/85) by Edward Francis CunninghamSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
Frederick the Great was involved in everything until the end. In particular, he always had the final say on Prussian military affairs. His army, and his leadership of it, set the standard in Europe. Edward Francis Cunningham conveys this image in his painting. The King is issuing his orders before a large international audience, including experienced generals like the Marquis de Lafayette and Lord Cornwallis.
Tod Friedrichs des Großen (about 1787) by Christian Bernhard RodeSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
Even while Frederick the Great was still alive, particular moments of his life, as relayed by anecdote, were recorded in drawings and paintings. This was even more true after his death. Bernhard Rode created a series of such anecdotal or allegorical scenes of the King between 1786 and 1791.
Here, however, Rode largely reflects what really happened, as opposed to the anecdotes that were circulating after Frederick's death. This lends the painting a certain veracity—which duly benefited Rode's other works and Frederick's image for posterity.
Begegnung zwischen Friedrich der Große und Kaiser Joseph II. in Neiße (after 1787) by Friedrich Wilhelm Bock (?)Sanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
The representation of Frederick the Great as a model monarch became a common pictorial leitmotif after the death of the King of Prussia in 1786. The meeting between the King of Prussia and the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II in Neiße on August 25, 1769, was a suitable subject as the Emperor admired the King and based his own approach on his enlightened style of government.
This admiration is clear from the rather insistent way in which Joseph is addressing the listening Frederick, as well as from the clothes both are wearing, in this painting attributed to Friedrich Wilhelm Bock. Just like his role model Frederick, Joseph also wore his uniform in public, something that Vienna had never seen before.
Friedrich der Große und der Marquis d´Argens beim Gruftbau in Sanssouci (about 1802) by Johann Christian FrischSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
Frederick the Great had wanted to be buried alone, in his own way, and only with his dogs. He did not want to be buried with his ancestors and certainly not his father as he regarded himself as someone unique who had outgrown his family. With this in mind, he arranged, in 1744, for a vault to be built for his mortal remains next to his palace, Sanssouci. Johann Christoph Frisch, with a certain degree of freedom, depicted the construction of the unusual tomb requested by Frederick, which was intended to underline, even in death, the prominent position he occupied in the history of his family. The conversation between the King and the Marquis d’Argens emphasizes his philosopher credentials.
Friedrich der Große mit den Windspielen (1822-1823 (Model from 1816)) by Johann Gottfried Schadow (Modelleur), François Lequine (Bronzegießer), and F. Louis Coué (Ziseleur)Sanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
The leitmotif of the old, reliable, and wise king was something Johann Gottfried Schadow picked up from anecdotal literature and then embodied in sculpture: Frederick the Great with his favorite Italian Greyhounds Alkmene and Hasenfuß, with whom he liked to pace the terrace at Sanssouci lost in thought. This became another variation on the theme of Old Fritz, the wise ruler of Sanssouci.
Friedrich der Große an der Leiche Schwerins (1868) by Wilhelm CamphausenSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
In the second half of the 19th century, Frederick the Great—as he himself intended—became an increasingly central figure within the Prussian state and something of a role model from a behavior, administration, and military perspective. What he said or did was law. Criticism of the King was not welcome. Anything unseemly was covered up, such as Frederick's differences with General Kurt Christoph von Schwerin that emerged after the King had left the battlefield at Mollwitz in 1740, where Schwerin secured a victory. Frederick held this against Schwerin for the rest of his life.
The painting by Wilhelm Camphausen, which shows the King standing respectfully above the Field Marshall's body, glosses over these differences. It shows the monarch's good nature in a moment of sadness.
Dankchoral von Leuthen (1864) by Wilhelm CamphausenSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
The Battle of Leuthen on December 5, 1757 is the most famous won by Frederick the Great in the Seven Years' War.
The King of Prussia led his army to victory, despite being outnumbered. According to an anecdote, the 25,000 exhausted Prussian troops set up camp on the field after the battle and sang the hymn Now Thank We All Our God. This went down in Prussian history as the Leuthen Hymn of Thanksgiving and duly became a popular patriotic hymn, first in Prussia and later in Germany.
Wilhelm Camphausen also intended to remind the Prussian military, by way of example, that a small army can stand up to larger forces.
Friedrich der Große (1870) by Wilhelm CamphausenSanssouci Palace, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg
By 1870, the features depicted in Frederick's portraiture had changed somewhat. Whereas Anton Graff in the 1780s had still portrayed a cerebral, energetic, and good-natured father of the nation, Wilhelm Camphausen, almost a century later and in the political climate of the time following Prussia's victories over Denmark, Austria, and France, painted an energetic King looking to the future with eyes wide open. A hard man who brooks no resistance, strides wilfully forward, and does not exactly radiate goodness. It is also a portrait of the Prussian state, which projected an aura of rigor to both itself and others—too often at the expense of mildness.
Dr. Jürgen Luh, Dr. Irena Kozmanová, and Truc Vu Minh, M.A. (SPSG, Research Center Sanssouci)