Facing Beethoven

Depictions of the composer from the collections of the Deutsches Historisches Museum

By German Historical Museum

Deutsches Historisches Museum

Ludwig van Beethoven (1801) by Unknown, copper engraving after a drawing by Gandolph Ernst Stainhauser von TreubergGerman Historical Museum

One of the earliest portraits of Ludwig van Beethoven shows him at the age of 30. At the time he was living in Vienna and was already a renowned pianist and composer. He is wearing contemporary, ordinary clothing. His hair is not powdered and is cut short, which had become the fashion after the French Revolution. His gaze is directed a bit obliquely towards the viewer.

In this form, as a modern young artist, the composer received his first pictorial guise. The engraving was used to illustrate his printed compositions and published in the "Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung" in 1804.

Life mask of Ludwig van Beethoven (1812) by Franz KleinGerman Historical Museum

1812 the sculptor Franz Klein was commissioned by the piano manufacturing family
Streicher to prepare a bust of Beethoven for a gallery of composers. Beethoven
agreed to have a plaster cast of his face made so that the bust would
correspond with his appearance as authentically as possible. To this end,
Beethoven’s face had to be oiled and then coated with wet plaster of Paris. Two
tubes were inserted into his nostrils so that he could breathe. But fearing
that he would die of asphyxiation, Beethoven tore the plaster mask off his face
so that the first attempt failed. The second try was successful.

“negative form” created in this way was then filled out with plaster to form
the life mask. Franz Klein used this model to make the face of the bust. The
aura of authenticity turned the mask into a standard model for other
representations, some of which appeared much later. However, this authentic
aspect should be seen from a particular point of view. Beethoven felt that the
whole procedure was taking far too long, so that the tightly pressed lips
represent not only his willpower, but also that he was trying to keep the
plaster of Paris from dripping into his mouth. And his eyes had to remain shut.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1814) by Louis LetronneGerman Historical Museum

In this copperplate engraving Beethoven is looking straight at the viewer. It shows the composer at the age of 44. It is the time of his greatest public fame during the Congress of Vienna. His piano sonatas, symphonies and the cantata “The Glorious Moment” (Op. 136) contributed to his repute.

A first version of the engraving was published by the Viennese publisher and art dealer Artaria in the year 1814. Beethoven himself sat model for a reworking of the engraving. It shows the effort to represent the composer as authentically as possible.

Painted box with the portrait of Ludwig van Beethovens (1825) by Producer: Stobwasser FactoryGerman Historical Museum

The copperplate engraving served as the model for illustrations on everyday items like this lacquer box. It is evidence of Beethoven’s fame during his lifetime. His portrait was even present in the daily lives of the people; this object was carried around all day long despite Beethoven’s rather piercing look. The little case could be used to carry pastilles, for example.

Portrait of Beethoven (1890) by Painter Bayer, copy after the drawing of Joseph StielerGerman Historical Museum

The painting is a copy of the famous portrait by Joseph Stieler.

Stieler did not
attempt to make an entirely realistic picture of the composer, but augmented it
with the aura of Beethoven’s life and work. Thus, vegetation can be seen in the
background, suggesting the importance of nature as a source of inspiration for
Beethoven. The composer is looking into the distance. Even in past times this
had been a way of alluding to the special ability of musicians to recognise and
see things that other people are not able to. At the same time it shows the
composer’s achievement of bringing these ideas into an artistic form, here
represented by the composition of the Missa Solemnis (Op. 123), the
title of which can be seen on the page in Beethoven’s own handwriting and which
he considered one of his most important works. 

Death mask of Ludwig van Beethoven (1827) by Josef Daniel DanhauserGerman Historical Museum

Beethoven died on 26 March 1827. Several
thousand people followed the coffin in the funeral procession.
The painter Josef Danhauser made the death
mask only a few hours after Beethoven passed away. Danhauser had to wait
until a barber had shaved Beethoven’s face.

Only a few decades earlier, the preparation of
death masks had been reserved for kings and nobles. Beethoven’s mask is evidence
of the new status of artists in the early 19th century.

A death mask recorded the face of a person
shortly after his death. This preserved, as it were, the sum of a life
discernible in the face before it was lost forever.

The preparation of the mask was only possible
through direct, physical contact with the deceased, which gave the mask a
relic-like aura.

Beethoven (1890) by Aimé de LemudGerman Historical Museum

Death is the brother of Sleep, a wanderer
between the worlds, like the genius of the artist, it is said. This appears
to be the meaning of this copperplate engraving.

Lemud’s picture is set like a stage. Beethoven’s
earthly life in music is suggested in the foreground, while a supra-worldly
scene appears in the background. The composer lies asleep between these two

orchestra of spirits or genies rises in the background while a couple dance
before it, alluding to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (Op. 43).
This points to the ability of the artist to make and shape things visibly and
audibly that are not accessible to normal mortals. In this sense, the artist
has a connection with a higher plane. This had already been part of Beethoven’s
image since the Romantic Age.

dark, melancholy figure with one hand reaching towards his ear suggests
Beethoven’s hearing impairment and his tragic fate, for its part giving rise to
the creative power in his works as, for instance, in the Fifth Symphony (Op.
67) with its famous Fate Motif.

is shown here as he sleeps. This condition opens new dimensions from which the
artist gathers inspiration for his painting. Correspondingly, Beethoven is
portrayed with the source of his creative production, a piano and a cello. His
productivity is indicated by the many scores and sheets of music on the
right-hand side of the picture.

Copy of the drawing Kreutzersonate of Lionello Balestieri, picture collection of Ernst Loops (1900) by Unknown, copy of the drawing by Lionello BalestieriGerman Historical Museum

picture from around the same time illustrates the impact of Beethoven’s music.
A house concert is taking place in a plainly furnished room. The people are
listening with deeply moved and rapt attention to the performance of
Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, the Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47.

The original was a large-format painting (2.70 x
1.30 m). The bright empty surface in the foreground seems to be inviting the
viewer to become one of the listeners. The picture was very popular and went on
tour throughout Europe. Its fame was further spread by means of the numerous
prints that were made of it.

Beethoven’s life mask can be seen on the wall in the background, appearing like the source of the music.

Unlike in a
public concert hall, the listeners could react to the music here in their own
individual way. They appear to be engrossed, listening with devotion. The modest
room could be a bohemian artist’s studio whose audience would be especially
open to the music and be able to appreciate it.

Max Klinger in front of his famous "Beethoven" monument (1901) by Otto HaeckelGerman Historical Museum

photographer Otto Haeckel gives us a view of a real atelier, that of the artist
Max Klinger in Leipzig. Klinger worked on a statue of Beethoven for interior display
between the years 1885 and 1902. It was publicly shown for the first time at
the 14th Exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1902. Beethoven is
enthroned on a pedestal. An eagle looks up at him, a symbol of Zeus and Jupiter
since antiquity.

In earlier
representations Beethoven was depicted as a great artist, but nevertheless as still
human, while here he is turned into a marble-sculpted, archaic, almost god-like

Klinger used classical artefacts as the basis for Beethoven’s body.

Beethoven’s life mask, cast by Franz Klein, served as the model for the composer’s face.

sculptor himself appears small next to his own work. Klinger’s muse, Elsa
Asenieff, described the meaning of the work as follows:

“His pensively inclined body appears to find
support in the strong-willed balling of the fist. The eye dreams out into the
distance in which he finds his own inner nature. It is no longer the human
being Beethoven, but an enthroned genius, divest of all moments of time.”

Emergency 10 Pfennig coin Emergency 10 Pfennig coin (1920) by Lüdenscheid, Kugel und FinkGerman Historical Museum

In 1920, the year in which the anniversary of Beethoven’s 150th birthday was celebrated, it was a different zeitgeist that brought his portrait onto this “emergency money” coin. It was made during inflation out of low-grade metals as a kind of ersatz money in place of gold and silver coins. In this way Beethoven found his way into the pockets of almost all inhabitants of his native city.

Beethoven was often portrayed on coins and stamps. In 2020 he adorns a 20 euro memorial coin.

Still life with a Beethoven mask Still life with a Beethoven mask (1937) by Josef Jurutka, paintingGerman Historical Museum

The still life emphasises the metaphysical and superhuman dimensions of the composer.

The extinguished candle points to the
ephemerality of all earthly things. The life mask of Beethoven on the wall, crowned
with a laurel wreath, symbolises the immortality of his music, indicated by the
violin and the sheets of music.

Still life with a Beethoven mask BacksideGerman Historical Museum

The painting by Josef Jurutka was shown at the 1939 German Art Exhibition in the Haus der Kunst in Munich.

Still life with a Beethoven mask Detail backsideGerman Historical Museum

It was one of the two paintings that Adolf Hitler bought for his own collection. For Hitler Beethoven embodied the superiority of German music.

Festschrift for the Beethoven commemorative year 1952 (1952) by Beethoven-Ausschuß des Stadt- und Landkreises Dresden, VEB RadebergGerman Historical Museum

The GDR celebrated Beethoven as a humanistic pioneer of socialism. Works like the Ninth Symphony (Op. 125) were interpreted in this way. In 1952 a festival week was organised, for which every city and every rural district had to put on Beethoven concerts. During an official speech in 1970 Willi Stoph, then chairman of the State Council of the GDR, spoke about the cultivation of the Beethoven legacy: “For Beethoven it was about the high ideals of humanity and their realisation, about their further development in the sense of social progress. […] For this reason we in our socialist German national state, in which we have eradicated the exploitation of man by man, have the right to claim him for our own."

Porcelain group "Die Intimen bei Beethoven" (Beethoven’s intimate circle) (1960) by Production: Sitzendorf Porcelain ManufactureGerman Historical Museum

Beethoven also found decorative entry into life in East Germany. The porcelain group was first produced in 1954 in the Sitzendorf Manufactory in Thuringia. It is based on an engraving by Albert Graefle from 1876, where only male friends of Beethoven are depicted. Female figures were added to the porcelain group. This piece once belonged to the first and only president of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck (1876–1960).

Poster for the Beethoven Festival 1983 (1983) by Michael Mathias PrechtlGerman Historical Museum

Prechtl’s poster for the Beethoven Festival in Bonn in 1983 humorously illustrates a different side of the composer.

He is carrying a colourful cornucopia of music
under his arm and the picture of a woman in his hand. The look on his face
contradicts the seriousness of his down-turned lips, as if he were bashfully
indicating the sources of his art: women, nature, walks.

"Beethoven privat" (The Private Beethoven), advertising post card (2004) by Berliner PhilharmonikerGerman Historical Museum

Due to the fame of his name and music Beethoven was often used as a motif in advertising.

His works supplied the background music for numerous products.
When his face was shown, it was usually taken from well-known portraits, such
as the painting by Stieler for an advertising campaign of the Berlin
Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004, here playing with the Beethoven motif and “myth”.

Credits: Story

Deutsches Historisches Museum

Object selection and text: Dr. Jost Lehne
Realisation: Peter Schützhold

I.: Elsa Asenieff, Max Klingers Beethoven. Eine kunst-technische Studie, Leipzig, no date [1902].
II.: Word of greeting: Willi Stoph, German State Opera, (East) Berlin, 16 December 1970.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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