Feb 6, 2013

"The Newly Discovered Mozart Portrait": Back to Reality

On 11 January 2013 the Mozarteum in Salzburg published a press release that contained the following page:


The gist of this announcement is as follows:
The Mozart Discovery. Hitherto the small portrait on a tobacco box came with a huge question mark. Now it is certain: it shows a portrait if the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart! In the course of a thorough study of all the documents and sources this portrait could definitely be identified as a Mozart portrait from 1783. The miniature shows a striking resemblance to the 1829 engraving by the Dresden engraver Gottschick, wh with this engraving refers to a miniature by Grassi. The portrait on the box could well be a work by Grassi, because Mozart and the painter met each other in Vienna.
Here is the page in the book about the exhibition that deals with the supposed Mozart miniature: 


What we read here, quickly takes us down from the spheres of "sensationally new discoveries" to the low grounds of only too well-known dull speculation. The "certainty" that the press release has been bragging about is gone and the shadow of "we don't really know anything for sure" is lying heavily on the the portrait's supposed authenticity:
Joseph Maria[sic!] Grassi (1757-1838)?[sic!] [...] The miniature shows a striking resemblance to the 1829 engraving by the Dresden engraver Gottschick who refers to a 1785 miniature by Grassi. The portrait on the box could[sic!] well be a 1783 work by Grassi or done from a 1783 model, when Mozart and the painter met each other in Vienna. Possibly[sic!] the object is identical with the "box lid that was done not long after his death, probably based on speculation" as the widow [Constanze Mozart] put it in 1800. It is conceivable[sic!] that there were several Grassi miniatures of this portrait which looks unfamiliar to us today.
Thus the whole "sensation" simply boils down to the following:
  • There is no proof that this miniature was intended to show Mozart.
  • There is no proof that it was done from life.
  • The miniature is being attributed to Joseph Grassi in the book based only on a handwritten[!] note on a copy of Gottschick's 1829 engraving. This note has no provable connection to Gottschick, who (for reasons not difficult to imagine) did not put this attribution on his engraving, but only wrote "Nach einem Miniaturgemälde 1785, gestochen von Gottschick 1829".
  • From a purely technical point of view this portrait is starkly at odds with Grassi's work and does not fit into the corpus of his oeuvre. Dr. Großpietsch seems to have delved very lightly into Grassi's life, since he does not even know the painter's correct forenames and erroneously calls him "Joseph Maria" (whereas his name was Joseph Mathias).
  • The dating of the portrait with the appearance of Grassi's name in a Mozart letter is totally arbitrary. There is no provable connection between Mozart and Grassi, apart from the fact that at a ball in 1783 both of them took part in a pantomime.
  • None of the information presented by the Mozarteum on p. 96 of the book about the exhibition is new. The information simply copies research that has already been published in 2008 by Dr. Richard Bauer in his book "Das rekonstruierte Antlitz" (Neustadt an der Aisch: 2008). Bauer is not being given credit by the Mozarteum in connection with the miniature portrait in question.
The articles in the book published by the Mozarteum are classic examples of the deep lack of logical thinking among scholars, who seem to be dazed by the "Salzburg Mozart Bubble" when it comes to logic and a clear methodology in defining *authenticity* in historical portraiture. I will deal with fundamental issues regarding the authenticity of Mozart portraits in an upcoming review of the exhibition book on this blog. 

In the course of a desperate publicity campaign the Mozarteum took advantage of a journalist's naivete and launched an article in today's New York Times, titled "Wolfgang, Is That You?". In this strangely superficial piece of "popular science" we are being confronted again with the usual mixture of factoids and unsubstantiated conclusions. Quote:
The document said Mozart had owned the snuffbox for 10 years and gave it as a gift to Anton Grassi, a sculptor friend in Vienna. Letters from Mozart indicate that Grassi’s brother Joseph, also an artist, painted a miniature of Mozart. Joseph acquired the snuffbox from his brother and attached the miniature, Ms. Ramsauer said.
This "document" (which could not be located by the Mozarteum experts in the course of the yearslong preparation of their current exhibition) is still unpublished. Since (as stated by Dr. Großpietsch) "Mozart owned several tobacco boxes", its provable[!] connection to the box in question remains doubtful. There is no proof at all that Anton Mathias Grassi (b. 26 June 1755 Vienna, d. 31 December 1807 Vienna) was a "sculptor friend" of Mozart's (as a matter of fact he was a model sculptor at the Imperial Vienna Porcelain Manufactory). To establish a close connection between Anton Grassi and Mozart is an even bigger stretch than the inflation of Joseph Grassi's dancing activities in 1783 into an intimate friendship with the composer. The claim that "Letters[!] from Mozart indicate that Grassi’s brother Joseph, also an artist, painted a miniature of Mozart" is a false and ruthlessly dishonest statement. Grassi does not appear in "letters", but only in one of Mozart's letters to his father on 12 March 1783, where Mozart only reports that "a[sic!] painter (graßi)" appeared as Dottore in a pantomime at a masquerade ball. Any similarity to scholarship is purely coincidental. There is no proof that Grassi ever painted a portrait of Mozart. There is no proof that "Joseph acquired the snuffbox from his brother" or that "he attached the miniature". These claims are all based on reckless speculation. Quote from the NY Times:
One of the most famous portraits — and the one Mozart’s wife, Constanze, considered the most true to life — has long been considered unfinished. It is by Joseph Lange, Mozart’s brother-in-law, and shows him in profile, looking down, his face emerging from a dark background, with a triangle of torso surrounded by scratched white space. The painting, dating from 1789, without doubt looks unfinished, like a classical symphony of two movements.
Fact of the matter is that there is no proof at all that this painting dates from 1789 (contrary to Großpietsch's claim Franz Segl's 1856 photograph proves absolutely nothing). This dating is based on a mere assumption. No research on Lange's oeuvre and the development of his artistic style has ever been undertaken by the Mozarteum. Quote:
X-ray and infrared analysis performed at the Doerner Institute in Munich, an art research institution, last December showed that a small completed painting of Mozart’s head and shoulder had been trimmed and mounted at some point on a larger canvas, with paint added around the edges to smooth out the surface. The enlargement was unfinished, not the original.
This paragraph offers no new information at all. It just repeats my 2009 discovery which I published on 19 September 2012 under the title "Joseph Lange's Mozart Portrait" on this blog. When I told Ms. Ramsauer about my discovery in June 2010, I learnt with astonishment that the thought of submitting the painting to X-ray and infrared analysis had not even occurred to the Mozarteum curators. Only after my suggestion did they undertake said analysis, leading to the "sensational" results about which the Mozarteum is now bragging. Of course I do not quarrel with the fact that with this media announcement regarding the Lange portrait the staff of the Mozarteum is now claiming a priority that is not really theirs. There are so many colleagues who witnessed my discovery back in 2009 that today I can actually lean back and watch the ongoing (and partly embarrassing) events with great amusement. I am proud of my groundbreaking vision that needed no X-ray analysis to discover the truth about Lange's Mozart portrait already four years ago.

Joseph Grassi's signature (which appears on none of his supposed "Mozart portraits")

Postscript (January 2014)

The document that according to the 2013 article in the New York Times, "said Mozart had owned the snuffbox for 10 years and gave it as a gift to Anton Grassi, a sculptor friend in Vienna" has still not been published by the Mozarteum.

7 comments:

  1. Wow. Great to see all this laid out - facts and fiction. Fantastic entry. Love the tiny last line about Grassi's signature.

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  2. What a gulf of understanding and insight between this blog and various sectors from Salzburg. Discussion and scholarlship of Mozart portraiture has struck me as practically non-existent, but qualified experts are not involved in the discussions. You've successfully poked enough holes in this one portrait to demonstrate quite well my point.
    Catherine

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  3. MIchael, I wish you would write the NYT. I believe (or at least I want to believe) that they still care about the truth. But someone has to let them know.

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    1. I agree. But, while I am no apologist for the press, they cannot possibly know much about something so arcane as Mozart portraiture. They have reporters trained for investigative reporting, but mostly for fields of politics, economics, and history. Yet, someone needs to alert them to this huge pitfall called Mozart portraiture. It would help if they would examine this issue, in this case the "Grassi portrait" as yet one more that is called authentic, but only later discredited as unauthentic. On average it takes decades and sometimes close to a century for this to come about. It would make for a very interesting expose, and be worthy of their effort. Money is often at the bottom of these issues. No other composer has claimed so many "authentic" portraits, which are now unquestioned at licensing companies such as Art Resource which sell the portraits for books, cds and so on. The press might want to ask why this keeps on happening in the Mozart field with some very tough questions. But, it does seem as though the press takes the word of the Mozarteum as inviolable.

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  4. Mozart had not so many faces as they are served up to us again and again. Bad that so-called experts either fall for false alarms or put themselves in the world.

    Good thing the other hand Michael Lorenz raises his voice and clarifies the facts.

    Guntram Erbe

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  5. Another great piece of research ! This clear and cut detailed entry should put an end to all spurious "facts"... Thank you for this.
    I really wonder why these two words, "Mozart" and "portait", usually send people spiralling into hasty "identification"... I wonder where common sense and art history have gone. (At least, we "know" that Richard III was buried beneath the Leicester parking lot ! ;-) )
    Emmanuelle Pesqué

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