In 1812, the sculptor, Franz Klein was commissioned by the German piano makers Nannette (1769-1833) and Johann Andreas Streicher (1761-1833) to produce a bust of Beethoven. The 42-year-old composer gave the sculptor permission to mould his face in plaster, and the result was the only life mask ever made of the composer. What became the iconic portrait from which all renderings of the musician were derived, the plaster is preserved by Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, Germany. It remains to this day the only completely faithful rendering of Beethoven’s features known, and the standard by which all portraits of him are judged.
It is understood that as the session with the sculptor drew to a close, an impatient Beethoven, feeling as though he were suffocating, took the mask off and threw it to the floor. The mask cracked in pieces. However, the broken mould parts were immediately retrieved by the sculptor, who cemented them back together. Klein later utilised the mask as the basis of his commissioned bust. Given its extraordinary detail, magnificent chasing, patina, and particular stylistic details, it closely resembles the period, sand cast bronze busts in the Wien Museum, produced in 1812 and overseen by the sculptor, Franz Klein, himself. The majority of later portraits and sculptures of the composer are based on Klein’s life mask.
The present example in bronze belonged to one of Frédéric Chopin’s best pupils, the celebrated virtuoso pianist, Émile Descombes (1829-1912), who, in turn, gave the mask to his favourite pupil, Édouard Risler (1873-1929). The latter had an eidetic memory. He played all of the rehearsals of Wagner’s Ring Cycle from memory at Bayreuth, and subsequently performed the complete cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas and the complete piano music by Chopin in concert in Paris.
Beethoven had small pox as a child and his skin was horribly disfigured. “The formidable impression conveyed by Klein’s austere life mask of seriousness and intense concentration (again, due partly to the plastering discomfort) would be seized upon by all later image makers as appropriate to the Beethoven aura. But the pockmarks- hardly conducive to hero worship- would be left behind”. One barely sees any traces of the composer’s pock marks in later versions of the mask. The angular and jagged wads of cotton used to protect his eyes are left exactly as they were originally cast and have not been converted to natural eyes. The mask corresponds as closely as possible to its originally modelled state. No adjustments have been made to embellish or to concede to delicate sensibilities.
Although poor examples of the Beethoven life mask are more commonly found, the present example is truly exceptional for the finesse of its casting. Extremely light in weight and of highly detailed surface, it faithfully reproduces the many blemishes, pock marks and enlarged pores that marred the composer’s face. In this regard, it is the closest to the original plaster conserved in the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn. The present mask is the only known bronze sculpture believed to have been taken from the original plaster life mask by Franz Klein.
While the present mask descended in French private collections, the style of casting and the mounting on the back are not at all typical of French bronzes and it is most probably the work of an early nineteenth-century Austrian foundry.
The Beethoven Life Mask will be on view and is for sale at Ben Elwes Fine Art / London Art Week. There will also be a concert by musicians from the Philharmonia at the gallery, playing Beethoven on July 6th.
London Art Week, taking place in galleries and online from July 3-8, has announced its series of wide-ranging selling exhibitions and highlights by this year’s dealers.
This year, London Art Week (LAW) introduces a special theme, Music & Dance, creating an artistic thread between galleries. Augmenting this theme is an exciting new partnership between LAW, Cromwell Place and the Philharmonia Orchestra, to present a series of chamber concerts in intimate gallery settings for those who enjoy music and art. Find more information at www.londonartweek.co.uk.
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