Goethe set out for Italy in September 1786. He travelled under a false name to avoid being recognised as the famous author of Werther. In Rome he retained his pseudonym, even for those who knew his true identity. He stayed with the painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, whom he had previously known only through letters. The two went on various adventures and short trips together, including an expedition to the “destroyed gravesites along the Via Appia” (Goethe). The impressions of that joint experience are reflected in this famous full-length portrait of the writer, painted a short time later. Here, Tischbein does stage the “great Goethe” after all – as a man between the epochs, between antiquity and the present.
Indeed, the painting has played a decisive role in shaping the world’s image of Goethe. Yet, the writer himself may not have felt at all as lofty as Tischbein made him out to be. For at the sight of the ruinous and deformed monuments such as the Tomb of Metella featured so prominently in the background, he mused: “These people worked for eternity, all was accounted for, all except the folly of the ravagers…” Nevertheless, Goethe worked with all his might to renew the appreciation of classical aesthetic.
Photo: Städel Museum – U. Edelmann - ARTOTHEK
Oil on canvas
164 × 206 cm
Inv. No. 1157