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Looks aren't Everything...unless you are a Celebrity
What did Beethoven Really look like?

You've no doubt seen that "official" portrait of Beethoven--quite serious, defiant, his eyes blazing thunderbolts to the heavens, his unruly shock of hair unkempt and wild, refusing to bow to mere conventions us poor mortals use, or a comb.

Is that the real  Beethoven? After all, he lived in the days before flash photography, and portrait painters could stretch the truth a little, and they often did, if their subject was rich, and ugly.

The truth is a bit complicated, as usual, but it should be noted that well before he died in March of 1827 Beethoven had achieved celebrity status.  People were selling his portrait all over Europe.

Ah, yes...then as now people wanted to be able to see their idols.  And what they apparently wanted to see, more than anything else, were the ideals he seemed to represent. Not a mere man.

A mere man is how the astonished music critic Ludwig Rellstab described him upon meeting him in 1825.  Though surprised that Beethoven appeared to him so ordinary, he had to ask himself  "why should  Beethoven's features look like his scores?"

 Of the hundreds of works Beethoven composed, so many seem to reflect a man with a sense of humor, genial, affable, full of joy, relaxed, and yes, by turns quite serious and profound, particularly as he aged and his deafness shut him off from society. And yet his works are mostly described by his contemporaries as bold, defiant, shocking, heavenstorming--as some of them even seem today. But perhaps that judgment is skewed by an over attention to a relatively small number of his profoundest and his most revolutionary works.

Beethoven was born only six years before the American Revolution and nineteen years before the French. All of Europe was in ferment, shedding a system of aristocratic government, replacing the authority of the nobility with the powerful economic clout of a rising middle class. Democratic ideals were in the air. Beethoven himself wholeheartedly subscribed to that, believing that Napoleon had come to liberate Europe. On arriving in Vienna, Napoleon's forces bombed the city heavily, and a shaken Beethoven changed his mind.

Beethoven was not so lofty that he was above wanting things both ways. The old order had placed accident of birth before personal merit and denied any chance at upward mobility. But Beethoven was not particularly concerned when people incorrectly substituted "von" for "van" and called him Ludwig "von" Beethoven. While the term "van" is a regular peasant prefix, "von" signifies nobility. Later in life, trying to win custody of his nephew Carl, Beethoven tried to use his "von" designation to push his weight around. He was embarrassed when the court discovered this to be a ruse.

Beethoven moved easily in aristocratic circles and was often patronized by its members. He dedicated his works to them in return.  But Beethoven did not consider himself subservient to any of them. One of his famous diatribes is a rebuke to a prince in which he shouts that there are hundred of princes (there were) "but only one Beethoven!"  It is also said that Beethoven refused to pay any respect to a party of aristocrats near Teplitz (see the above painting), while his walking companion, the famous poet Goethe, stood at the side of the road with his hat off.  The source for this tale is Beethoven himself, in a letter dated August 14th 1812 to Bettina von Arnim. The problem is that the letter may not be authentic. Ms. von Arnim became quite famous for her publications of letters from both Goethe and Beethoven but does not seem to have been above making history more interesting than it originally was. Still, many take the incident for historical fact (and some date the incident from July rather than August so that it actually occurred during Beethoven's visit to Goethe and not a monthly later when none of the parties involved were in town!), and it does seem to illustrate something fundamental about the character of each (particularly the character we think we know). So, did it happen? It might have--or at least, we want to have happened. Enough then. It did!

If Beethoven's uncompromising behavior was what most drew the attention of the Viennese, it would be no surprise if the Beethoven they saw in pictures began somehow to resemble a defiant revolutionary. But Beethoven's appearance, at least at first, remained stubbornly unremarkable.

To begin with, his face apparently had a few scars and deformities, the results of a possible struggle with smallpox or some other infectious disease which left a lingering signature. Though testimony to this facial misfortune is given repeatedly in print, it is consistently "edited out" when his portrait is painted.

The nose, apparently, was revised as well, being a bit larger than is commonly represented. The biggest problem, however, seems to have been with the eyes, which are often depicted as gazing heavenward, steely, fiery. More often in his portrait sittings he was probably distracted. He hated to sit for them very long, and, as there came a steady stream of persons wanting him to sit for them, adopted a regimen of inviting them into his study and then ignoring them, improvising at the piano for hours and forgetting that they were there. One of his favorite painters was a man named Klober who came in unannounced, left unannounced, said not a word, and simply went on with his work while Beethoven worked. Like a good naturalist observing Beethoven in the wild he must have had to imagine something of the character Beethoven's features would assume had he been paying attention to the proceedings.

Beethoven himself had favorite portraits. At one point in his life it was the one on the right. It apparently does capture much of Beethoven's actual face, and was thought to be particularly lifelike by Beethoven's inner circle. It begins to show us the growing dominance of Beethoven's favorite feature--his hair. Thick, massive, unruly, like a lion's mane, this storm-tossed foliage soon conspired with the furrowed brow and the intensely concentrated eyes to give us the Beethoven we know.

Because so many portraits of Beethoven were copies of other portraits it was no great difficulty at the time of his death for one or two official versions to gain preeminence.  Helping this cause were Beethoven's close allies, particularly a man named Schindler who was so proud of his association with Beethoven that he had the words "Friend of Beethoven" engraved on his business card. Schindler went to great lengths in writing to praise certain portraits and condemn others, testifying as an authority since, after all, he was an eyewitness.  

Schindler could have been a reputable source for much Beethoven lore, but to suggest that he had an agenda would probably be a severe understatement. What is particularly interesting is that he even overrules Beethoven on some points. Of the portrait above, the one that Beethoven liked "because of the way the hair was done," Schindler exclaims that "Of all the poor likenesses of our master, this one must be considered the most plebian." But he was able to share the wealth when it came to unkind words. Regarding the portrait on the left, by one Joseph Mahler, Schindler simply writes that it was not worth making a copy because it was "mediocre." Beethoven had thought enough of it to write to the artist, who had borrowed it, asking him to return it soon so that he could give it to a young lady, hoping to procure certain favors thereby.

 

Beethoven does seem to have had a weakness for having his portraits done, though he could hardly sit still long enough for his artists to capture more than a quick impression, and if they were so impertinent to ask more than he would give--well, they might have to finish the portrait from memory! The unfortunate Waldmuller dared to ask Beethoven to sit facing an open window--a natural light source-- and received condemnation from the master. But then, Beethoven was less than pleased with his face. Nor was he altogether happy about the talents of some of his painters, though he wrote  "I cannot take responsibility...for the misfortune to have made a bad drawing of me" protesting at the same time that his face was "not really that significant". It could not have been easy being an icon throughout Europe; "great is his horror of being anything like exhibited" writes an observer.  Even after his death careful attention was paid to capturing for all time his study the way it looked at the time of his death, as well as his face and his hands, quickly sketched, while his ears were removed and sent away to determine the cause of his deafness.  Copies of his final portrait were immediately sold throughout Europe.

 


This essay owes a great deal to Alessandra Comini's very interesting book, The Changing image of Beethoven: A study in Mythmaking (1987, N.Y.: Rizzoli) particularly the first chapter. All of the above pictures appear in this book, and all are portraits of Beethoven! (in case you wondered). The blatant opinions, however, are mainly my own.

michael@pianonoise.com