Angelika Kauffmann - Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

by Sarah Baur


The "tender soul Angelika", as Goethe often called her in his Italian Journey, was Swiss by birth and subsequently grew up in Italy. That Angelika Kauffmann (1741 - 1807) possessed artistic talent became apparent early on and her father, who was himself a painter, supported and taught her in this field. Both earned their money mainly with portrait art and made more and more acquaintances with the travelling aristocracy in Italy. As it became more and more popular among the upper class of Europeans to take an educational trip to Italy - the so-called Grand Tour - it also became more and more popular to take a souvenir - often in the form of a portrait, among other things.

As is well known, the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also undertook a journey through Italy from 1786 to 1788 and thus became acquainted with the painter Angelika Kauffmann, who was already successful at the time. Goethe had already been known for years for his work The Sorrows of Young Werther, for which Kauffmann had even produced two illustrations. Here in Italy, like most artists, he was now taken by antiquity and accordingly sought a suitable subject for a new work. Thus he began work on Iphigenia on Tauris, from which he read a few verses to Kauffmann. He reported: "The tender soul Angelica received the piece with incredible fervour; she promised me to make a drawing from it, which I should possess as a souvenir." Goethe was of course aware that drawings by Angelika Kauffmann, to his plays would have a positive effect on sales and he praised the finished illustration as "perhaps one of her happiest compositions." Conversely, this connection also brought the painter more acquaintance in Germany. A close friendship soon developed between the two and Goethe came to visit every Sunday and sometimes during the week. Kauffmann therefore made a friendship portrait of the writer for her own collection.

IIt is a simple oval portrait without any staging through decoration or attributes. The sitter appears younger, the face more delicate than it actually is and the intense gaze expresses sensitivity and vulnerability. This is why Goethe himself was not very convinced by the portrait and he compared it to the portrait Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein made of him: "Tischbein is very well-behaved [...] My portrait will be happy; it resembles very much, and the thought pleases everyone. Angelica also paints me, but nothing comes of it; she is very annoyed that it does not resemble her and does not want to become like her. It is always a handsome fellow, but there is no trace of me." Goethe preferred to see himself as a "cultural hero" as in Tischbein's painting.

A friend of Goethe's, Johann Gottfried Herder, on the other hand, wrote in a letter to his wife: "Goethe's picture has taken a very tender hold on her, more tender than he is, which is why the whole world cries out about dissimilarity; which, however, really exists in the picture. The tender soul thought of him as she painted him." Kauffmann was known to have a good eye for the inner life of the people she portrayed. In this she adhered to the doctrine of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, with whom she had also become acquainted. In his "Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst" (Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture), he described the "great and sedate soul" that is powerful in its emotions and knows how to reveal them neither in posture nor in facial expression. It is more important to be able to recognise the "sincerity of the heart" in what is portrayed. Angelika Kauffmann in particular understood how to implement this sensitivity so strongly emphasised by Winckelmann, this "striving for harmony in art" in her paintings.


And she did the same with the portrait of Goethe, which was based on such an intimate friendship: it is a mirror of the soul.


Angelika Kauffmann - Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1787, oil on canvas, 64 x 52 cm, Weimar, Goethe National Museum


Angelika Kauffmann - Iphigenia, Orest and Pylades

1787, black and white chalk on paper, 290x360 cm, Düsseldorf, Goethe Museum, Anton and Katharina Kippenberg Foundation


Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein - Goethe in the Campagna

1787, oil on canvas, 64x52 cm, Weimar, Goethe National Museum