Goethe – His family, his early life and his loves

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Georg Oswald May (1779)
Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Georg Oswald May (1779)

 In nearly all my previous blogs I have either featured a single painting or a single artist but this blog is different as I am concentrating on not just one piece of art or one painter but instead looking how various artists portrayed the same sitter.  The subject of this blog is the German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Johann Caspar Goethe (father)
Johann Caspar Goethe (father)

Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main in August 1749.  His father was Johann Casper Goethe, whose father was the son of a wealthy tailor who later became an innkeeper.  Goethe’s father inherited a fortune from his late father’s estate and after studying law at Leipzig University enjoyed the life, as a man of leisure, touring Italy, France, and the Low Countries.  Goethe Snr. was also an avid collector of books and paintings and later he would devote himself to his children’s education.

Catharina Elisabeth Goethe (mother) by Georg Oswald May (1776)
Catharina Elisabeth Goethe (mother) by Georg Oswald May (1776)

Goethe’s mother was Catharina Elisabeth Goethe (née Textor), the daughter of Johann Wolfgang Textor, a prominent citizen of Frankfurt. She was twenty-one years younger than her husband whom she married in August 1748. Goethe was the eldest of seven children.  Sadly only he and his eldest sister, Cornelia, who was two years his junior, lived to adulthood with the other siblings dying in infancy.

Cornelia Goethe (1771)
Cornelia Goethe (1771)

The family’s status would probably be identified as middle-class but they were financially well off and young Goethe lived a comfortable early life.  Frankfurt, at the time, was a wealthy commercial and financial centre, and it was also virtually a self-governing republic, a kind of city-state within the Holy Roman Empire.   His mother was a great influence to her son in the early days when she encouraged him to read and consider writing stories.  He attended a local school but after some troubles his father withdrew him and decided that his son should be home-tutored along with his sister Cornelia.  Tutors were brought in and young Goethe received academic lessons in subjects such as Greek, Latin, French, Italian, English and Hebrew as well as non-academic tuition in horse riding, dancing and fencing.  Home tutoring continued until he was fifteen years old.

Portrait of Adam Oeser by Anton Graff (1776) (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg)
Portrait of Adam Oeser by Anton Graff (1776)
(Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg)

Goethe’s father had mapped out his son’s future education and career, wanting him to follow in his own footsteps, attending Leipzig University as a law student and then going forward into the legal profession.  Following that, his father believed that there would be a place for his son at the Supreme Court in Wetzlar and that the rounding off his education would be accomplished by young Goethe taking part in a Grand Tour of Italy.  Following that journey, his father had great hopes that his son would carve a niche in Frankfurt society and gain a powerful position in the city’s administration – an end game his father never quite managed to achieve, and so in 1765, at the age of sixteen, Goethe, like his father before him,  enrolled at Leipzig University to study law.  The city was the hub of the country’s literary revival.   It was whilst in Leipzig that he had his first official drawing lessons from the German painter and sculptor Adam Friedrich Oeser , a professor at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, which had opened its doors for the first time the year before and would become one of the oldest art schools in Germany.  It was during his artistic studies that Goethe became influenced by the writings of the art historian Johann Winklemann.

Friederike Oeser
Friederike Oeser

Whilst taking drawing lessons at the home of Adam Oeser he became friends with his daughter Friederike Oeser .  The Oeser family proved to be a great influence on Goethe and for years after his departure from Leipzig he would write to both father and daughter

By the time Goethe entered Leipzig University he had written a few short pieces but on reflection thought that they were child-like in quality so decided to destroy them and write a more adult piece.  The result was a collection of erotic verses and a pastoral drama, a form of drama evolved from poetry which idealizes nature and the rural life, entitled Die Laune des Verliebten (The Lover’s Caprice) which he started in 1767 but did not complete until many years later.

Anna Katharina Schönkopf
Anna Katharina Schönkopf

All was not well with university life as he fell in love with Anna Kätchen Schönkopf, the daughter of an innkeeper and wine merchant, Christian Gottlieb Schönkopf.  Although bombarding her with words of love and devotion and dedicated poems to her (a collection of them entitled Annettenlieder (Songs to Annette) was later published), the young woman, sadly for Goethe, never returned his love and was put off by his jealousy and eventually entered into a liaison with another aspiring lawyer, Christian Karl Kanne, ironically, a man who had been introduced to Anna by Goethe.

Goethe was devastated and decided to take literary revenge by writing a verse comedy, Die Mitschuldigen (Partners in Guilt) which highlighted the folly of a woman and her regrets after a year of marriage to the wrong man.  Goethe’s stay at the university was cut short in September 1768 when he was struck down with tuberculosis and had to return home without any qualifications.  In April 1770 having recovered from his long illness he travelled to Strasbourg to resume his studies for a doctorate in law.  To achieve this he had to produce a dissertation,  His choice of subject for the dissertation was controversial in which he questioned the status of the Ten Commandments.  For the examiners it was a step too far and was rejected and so his studies took another route by taking instead the Latin oral examination for the licentiate in law which he passed.

Friederike Brion. Color lithograph after drawing of George Engelbach
Friederike Brion. Color lithograph after drawing of George Engelbach

In October 1770, during his student days in Strasbourg, Goethe met Friederike Brion, an eighteen year old Lutheran pastor’s daughter during a riding trip with a fellow student, Friedrich Weyland,  to the small village of Sesenheim, forty kilometres north of Strasbourg, not far from the River Rhine. The two had dressed themselves as impoverished theology students and managed to inveigle a stay at the parsonage overnight which was when Goethe was introduced to the family.  Once again it was love at first sight when he saw Friederike .  He wrote about the initial encounter with Friederike:

“…Slim and light, as if she had nothing to wear in itself, she went, and almost seemed for the huge blond braids cute little head, the neck too delicate. From serene blue eyes, she looked around very clear, and the like snub nose did research so freely in the air, as if there could be in the world do not worry; the straw hat hanging on the arm, and so I had the pleasure to see them at the first glance at once in all its grace and loveliness and be seen…”

The love affair was both passionate and short-lived, ending when Goethe had received his licentiate in June 1771 and “fled” back to the family home in Frankfurt.  As a young man, Goethe was somewhat of a commitment-phobe.  Friederike was broken-hearted and suffered a breakdown.  Maybe Goethe felt some guilt as a lot of his writings during the next decade featured women who had been spurned by their lovers. One such work was Heidenröslein (“Rose on the Heath” or “Little Rose of the Field”) which was a poem he wrote in 1771.  Heidenröslein tells of a young man’s rejected love, with the lady being represented by a rose.

Goethe and Friederike Brion by Eugen Klimsch (1890)
Goethe and Friederike Brion by Eugen Klimsch (1890)

The German painter and illustrator, Eugen Klimsch, captured a scene between the star-crossed lovers, Friederike and Goethe, in a woodcut entitled Goethe and Friederike Brion which he completed in 1890.  Klimsch was a follower of seventeenth century Dutch paintings and French Rococo art and his greatest success was the illustrations he did for the 5th edition of Goethe’s autobiography, Aus meinen Leben, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and truth from my own life) a story of his life between birth and 1775.

The first meeting between Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friederike Brion in Sesenheim by August Borckmann (1875)
The first meeting between Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friederike Brion in Sesenheim by August Borckmann (1875)

Another illustration featured Goethe and Frederike first meeting, this time by August Borckmann which appeared in an 1875 edition of Das Buch Für Alle (The Book for All), a German illustrated monthly family magazine.

At the graveside of Friederike Brion (200th death anniversary)
At the graveside of Friederike Brion
(200th death anniversary)

Frederike Brion died in Meißenheim in 1813 and three years ago there was a service at her grave to mark the 200th anniversary of her death.  Among those present were dignitaries from Sesenheim and Conrad Textor (2nd from left), a descendant of Goethe.

Having achieved the licentiate in law, Goethe then started a legal practice in Frankfurt.  The plans for his future that his father had meticulously designed were well on the way to fruition !   In the spring of 1772 Goethe, wanting to further himself in the legal profession. travelled to Wetzlar, to work and gain practical experience as a law clerk at the Imperial Supreme Court.  Wetzlar proved to be yet another location where Goethe fell in love, this time his beau was Charlotte Buff.  This liaison was never going to be a success as, at the time, Charlotte was, and had been for four years, engaged to be married to Johann Kestner, an art collector and diplomat, and although she, Goethe and Kestner spent time together the short lasting experience was always going to be a disappointment to Goethe and end in tears, even though he provided the wedding rings for the happy couple.

First edition of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang Goethe
First edition of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang Goethe

According to J G Robertson in his 1959 book A History of German Literature, the doomed love of Goethe led him to publish an emotional novel entitled Die Leiden des jungen Werthers  (The Sufferings of Young Werther), which was published in 1774. The fictional tale, thought to be semi-autobiographical, is presented as a collection of letters written by Werther, a young artist of a sensitive and passionate temperament, to his friend Wilhelm. These give an intimate account of his stay in the fictional village of Wahlheim (based on Garbenheim, near Wetzlar whose peasants have enchanted him with their simple ways. There he meets Charlotte, a beautiful young girl who takes care of her siblings after the death of their mother. Werther falls in love with Charlotte despite knowing beforehand that she is engaged to a man named Albert eleven years her senior.  This novel proved immensely popular in Europe, and was far more influential than Goethe’s later works. Werther became a cult-figure for a whole generation, but was also criticized as provocative and a threat to customary morality. The novel was translated into many languages, imitated, “corrected,” even occasionally forbidden—whereupon it would be circulated secretly from one reader to the next

Charlotte Buff-Kestner by Johann Heinrich Schröder
Charlotte Buff-Kestner by Johann Heinrich Schröder

A painting of Charlotte Buff-Kestner was completed by the German pastelist  portrait painter, Johann Heinrich Schröder.  Schröder  was born in Meining in 1757 and studied at the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Kassel under Johann Heinrich-Tischbein  (see later, his paintings of Goethe).   Schröder soon became a portrait painter at the German royal courts, such as the one of Brunswick and Baden, where his lively, bright pastel portraits were highly acclaimed.

Goethe is made Privy Councilor by Wilhelm von Kaulbach,
Goethe is made Privy Councilor by Wilhelm von Kaulbach,

In December 1774 Goethe made the acquaintance of Carl August, the Hereditary  Duke of Sachsen-Weimar –Eisenach, and had been invited to Weimar as his guest.  In October 1775 he made the journey to the German town which was then under the influence of Duchess Anna Amalia who was an ardent patron of the arts. After arriving in Weimar, Goethe was serenaded by the courtiers and became a good friend of Anna Amalia’s son Duke Karl August, so much so, on Goethe’s thirtieth birthday, in 1779, recognizing his official duties, he was made a privy councilor and the ceremony was captured in the drawing by Wilhelm von Kaulbach.  In the sketch we see Goethe being crowned by Duke Karl and seated we see Anna Amalia.  Goethe commented about the event, writing:

“…It is strange and dream-like, that I, in my thirtieth year, enter the highest place which a German citizen can reach…” 

Charlotte von Stein by Georg Melchior Kraus (1787)
Charlotte von Stein by Georg Melchior Kraus (1787)

One of Anna Amalia’s ladies in waiting at the Weimar court was Charlotte von Stein.  Shortly after his arrival in Weimar Goethe met Charlotte and a friendship quickly followed which would last more than a decade.  During that period she greatly influenced Goethe’s life and his writing.  They were so close that her eleven year old son came to live with Goethe and he acted as his tutor.

In September 1786, ten years after his arrival in Weimar, Goethe suddenly left the German town and his friends and set off for Italy on what was to be a two year voyage of discovery.  He had not consulted the Duke of Weimar, his employer or his close friend Charlotte von Stein.   This decision of course was the final piece of his father’s jigsaw plan for his son’s life.   He was thirty-seven years of age and the sojourn proved to be, as Goethe put it, “the happiest period of his life”.  It was in Italy that Goethe arranged a travelling stipend for the German portrait painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein so that he could join him.  Goethe had been pleased with Tischbein’s works of art and believed that he would be a good travelling companion and someone who could help him with his own works of art .  When they arrived in Rome, the two lodged in a large apartment on the Via del Corso.  Johann Tischbein had come from a family of artists which spanned three generations and to identify him from his siblings he became known as “Goethe’s Tischbein”.  The two lived in adjoining rooms of the apartment but often took meals together.  Goethe was initially delighted with his companion, writing:

“…We are so well suited that it is as if we have always lived together…”

This initial friendship waned slightly, as although they travelled together from Rome to Naples, they then parted company with Goethe wanting to head to Sicily and Tischbein, being of more meagre means, decided to stay in the Neapolitan city in the hope of attaining a post at the Academia del Arte.  The two were very different in character and latterly could not stand each other’s company !

Goethe at the window of the apartment on the Via del Corso, Rome by Johann Tischbein (1787) (42 x 27cms) (Frankfurter Goethe-Museum)
Goethe at the window of the apartment on the Via del Corso, Rome by Johann Tischbein (1787)
(42 x 27cms)
(Frankfurter Goethe-Museum)

One of Tischbein’s great talents as an artist was his power of observation and this is highlighted in his  watercolour entitled Goethe at the window of the apartment on the Via del Corso in Rome which he completed in 1787.

Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1787) (164 x 206cms) Frankfurt Stâdel Museum
Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1787)
(164 x 206cms)
Frankfurt Stâdel Museum

Tischbein’s most famous painting, and said to be one of the most popular works of art in Germany, is his 1787 work entitled Goethe in the Roman Campagna, which he had started the previous October.   We see Goethe wearing a halo-like broad brimmed grey hat, which was de rigeur for the German artists living in the Eternal city.  He wears a long sleeved creamy white duster and gazes out at the distant landscape in an idealized full-length classical pose.  He looks calm and collected.  It is typical of a Neoclassical painting with the ancient ruins seen in the background.  Behind Goethe, towards the right of the painting we can see a relief scene of Iphigenia meeting her brothers.  This was not an accidental inclusion by Tischbein as at the time Goethe was working on Iphigenia in Tauris based on the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides , Iphigeneia in Taurois.

I suppose I should apologise over this blog on two counts.  Firstly it is over-long and secondly it is probably more to do with history than art but after reading about the painting Goethe in the Roman Campagna I got hooked on the writers early life and loves.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

4 thoughts on “Goethe – His family, his early life and his loves”

  1. Goethe reminds me of many young men, very talented in their specialist areas, but socially incompetent. Think of van Gogh, Ruskin, Gauguin, Dickens and others who either could never hold on to a woman or ruined the lives of those wives and girlfriends they did have. Did the men have any idea of the chaos they left behind them?

  2. Another wonderful post. Nothing to apologize for. Thank you for all your interesting and beautiful posts. I save them, of course and resolve to see the work of what artists I can in the course of my travels. Betty Heycke Honolulu and Ashland, Oregon

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Goethe wasn’t the only brilliant man who was, at the same time, socially incompetent in his social/marital life. Think of men like Dickens, Gauguin, Ruskin and Van Gogh who failed dismally in every relationship. Did they know about their destructive impact on women? Did they care?

  4. When man had ceased to utter his lament,
    A god then let me tell my tale of sorrow.

    “What hope of once more meeting is there now
    In the still-closed blossoms of this day?
    Both heaven and hell thrown open seest thou;
    What wavering thoughts within the bosom play!—
    No longer doubt! Descending from the sky,
    She lifts thee in her arms to realms on high.
    And thus thou into Paradise wert brought,
    As worthy of a pure and endless life;
    Nothing was left, no wish, no hope, no thought,
    Here was the boundary of thine inmost strife:
    And seeing one so fair, so glorified,
    The fount of yearning tears was straightway dried…”

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