Saturday, December 18, 2010

Goethe and Collecting

Thursday evening I gave my talk at Columbia on "John Milton and the Pre-Kantian Sublime." It went over well, to a great extent because of the "Keynote" (Apple's version of Power Point) presentation. I had some great images to keep people occupied. The next step is to turn the talk into an essay. But, first, time to catch up with a few things, which I was prevented from doing while preparing for my talk.

I received an email from Prudence Crowther, alerting me to an eBay auction of this drawing of Goethe by Friedrich Preller (1804-1878). Goethe is portrayed in death, with a laurel wreath on his head. Preller had been a student of the drawing academy in Weimar. At the age of seventeen, he executed cloud studies for Goethe and was later sent by Carl August to Italy to study painting. He was in Rome in 1830 with Goethe's son August when the latter died, and, in 1832, he was the only artist allowed to sketch Goethe on his deathbed. The laurel wreath was placed on Goethe's head by Coudray, the architect with whom Goethe had a close personal and professional relationship. According to a fascinating site, Recherche, the original drawing is in the Goethemuseum in Dusseldorf. Goethe's family did not wish to have the drawing duplicated, but apparently Preller made copies of which the eBay drawing is one. Since I wasn't able to pull the Preller drawing off of the eBay site, I am including the drawing below from Recherche, namely, of "Goethe auf der Strasse, 1785." I have not seen this image of Goethe previously, and there is no indication of who drew it.

Prudence thought I might like to purchase the Preller drawing, though I am not really a collector, in contrast to Goethe. He began collecting in the 1770s already, with "Schattenrisse," in connection with his work on Lavater's physiognomic studies. He went from there to collecting "autographs" (remember those from your schooldays?). As he later (in 1812) wrote to his friend Jacobi, "Since sensuous intuition is indispensable to me, excellent people are made present in a magical way through their handwriting" (Denn da mir die sinnliche Anschauung durchaus unentbehrlich ist, so werden mir vorzügliche Menschen durch ihre Handschrift auf eine magische Weise vergegenwärtigt).

The extent of his passion can be seen from the size of his collections. Of works of art, these include 2,500 drawings, 50 paintings, over 9,000 copperplate engravings, etchings, and other graphic works, 2,000+ coins, 76 cameos ... Well, I won't go on. He also had almost 18,000 minerals, stones, and fossils.

Back in March of this year, I posted on Goethe and dilettantism, in which I mentioned an essay, The Collector and His Circle, written in 1798. The essay is in the form of an epistolary novel, with the letters written by members of the family of the collector. Among other things, the work concerns the various motives one might have for amassing a collection.

I do collect books, though hardly in a systematic manner, and it is a collection that is not of much interest to anyone but myself. If I were to collect, I might like to own one of the charming watercolors done by Edward Lear when he was in Greece in the 1840s, like the view at the top of this post of the temple of Hephaestus in Athens. In fact, if I had my life to do over again, I would become a watercolorist. What could be more pleasant than sitting out of doors with a sketch pad? And I find such a delight in looking at watercolors.

Picture credits: Golden Age Painting; Recherche

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