Two Enlightenment Portraits: Kant and Mozart

13 September 2010


Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation: A Personal View, made a characteristically astute observation about the unfinished portrait of Mozart painted by Joseph Lange, his brother-in-law:

“…to pronounce the name of Mozart in the Amalienburg [palace] is dangerous. It gives colour — very pretty colour — to the notion that Mozart was merely a Rococo composer. Fifty years ago this was what most people thought about him, and the notion was supported by horrible little plaster busts which made him look the perfect eighteenth-century dummy. I bought one of these busts when I was at school, but when I first heard the G minor Quintet I realised that it couldn’t have been written by the smooth, white character on my mantelpiece and threw the bust into the wastepaper basket. Afterwards I discovered the Lange portrait which, although no masterpiece, does convey the singlemindedness of genius.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, p. 241

Clark thought that he could see in the Lange portrait the “singlemindedness of genius” that could produce the string quintet in G minor. Perhaps so. Clark had evidently looked carefully at the portraiture of Europe’s past, and I have agreed with him in regard to those works I have seen with my own eyes (such as the Riemanschneider wood carvings at Würzburg), so I will trust him on this. I have not been to Salzberg and so I have not seen the Lange portrait of Mozart with my own eyes.

I was just looking at one of the few well-known portraits of Kant and I realized how much it resembled the Lange portrait of Mozart. I did some internet research today (I didn’t have immediate access to a good library) and I wasn’t able to find anything definite about the Kant portrait I have in mind (reproduced below). The only thing that I could find about it claimed that it was an anonymous portrait of about 1790. The fact that I could find no definite attribution of the painting (which appears on the covers of the Cambridge University Press editions of Kant’s works translated in the English) supports its anonymity, but this requires further investigation.

What I did find when attempting to research Kant’s portraits was an interesting paper specifically about Kant’s portraits, which includes this passage:

“In Döbler’s portrait and in Kiefer’s faithful if expressionistic reproduction of it — as well as in many of the other late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century portraits of Kant — the forehead is remarkably large and decidedly retreating. Was Kant’s forehead shaped this way in these images because he was a philosopher, or, to follow the implications of Lavater’s system, was he a philosopher because of the intellectual acuity manifested by his forehead? Kant and Lavater were correspondents on theological matters, and Lavater cites Kant in the Physiognomy.”

“Immanuel Kant and the Bo(a)rders of Art History,” Mark Cheetham, in The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspectives, p. 16

Cheetham was referring to the 1791 Döbler portrait, which I will reproduce below.

Needless to say, the prominence of Kant’s forehead is far more pronounced in the anonymous portrait said to date from 1790, which could mean many different things, but we will not pursue this at present.

In both the anonymous portrait of Kant and the Lange portrait of Mozart we see what Clark called the “singlemindedness of genius” portrayed to the extent of the ability of a portraitist to portray the inner life of his subject, which is, truth be told, very limited, but it nevertheless is one of the great tests of an artist’s mettle. Apart from this attempt to portray the inner life of the sitter, the two portraits have much else in common. In each, the bust alone is portrayed, and portrayed against a plain dark background — although if the Lange portrait had been finished that might not have remained the case. But even if that had not remained the case, the angle of the heads, and view taken of that angle, and expressions on the faces of each would still display a remarkable parallelism.

Kant was an exemplar of the Enlightenment in the realm of pure thought, while Mozart was an exemplar of the Enlightenment in music. Kant wrote his great works after he turned fifty; Mozart never reached the age of fifty, and composed all his music as a youth, dying tragically young. Mozart’s life from 1756 to 1791 was entirely contained within Kant’s life from 1724 to 1804. Kant was 32 when Mozart was born and 67 when Mozart died, so that the years of Mozart’s life would have contained the bulk of Kant’s creative years as a philosopher. The portraits of the two (if the information that I have is correct) are only eight years apart: the Lange portrait dating from 1782 and the anonymous portrait of Kant from 1790.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

These portraits emphasize the seriousness of purpose both of Kant and Mozart. Such portraits command our respect. They also differ quite dramatically from some of the most famous portraiture of the Enlightenment. Clark himself in his coverage of the Enlightenment mentions the enigmatic smile that one sees in the portraits of the period (both in painting and sculpture), but there is no such “smile of reason” in these Enlightenment portraits of Kant and Mozart. Perhaps one of the greatest Enlightenment portraits is that of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

Self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

Maurice Quentin de La Tour was a prolific portraitist of the Enlightenment, and also did a wonderful portrait of himself that not only shows his “smile of reason” to great effect, but also shows the unity of his technique, looking, as it does, so much like his other portraits. And we note here that Maurice Quentin de La Tour (we must write out his whole name and not abbreviate it to “de La Tour” lest we confuse his works with those of Georges de La Tour) didn’t even paint his portraits — they are all pastel on paper. Is this one of the secrets hidden behind the enigmatic smile of reason?

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4 Responses to “Two Enlightenment Portraits: Kant and Mozart”

  1. Dear Mr. Nielsen,

    I’ve been away. Sorry for such a prolonged absence, and particularly so, as this is as fine a piece as ever you’ve penned.

    How remarkable the similarities are! The foreheads are very alike, of course, and your suggestion that this may have been meant to convey genius reflects the common presumptions of the day, which respected phrenology.

    In fact, when Holmes is finally confronted by his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, Sir Conan Doyle writes of Moriarty that, “his forehead domes out in a white curve.” In the paragraph just after this, Moriarty’s first words ever to Holmes — of all things! — are, “You have less frontal development than I expected,” meaning of course that Holmes’s own forehead is none too pronounced. Too funny. Interesting, isn’t it?

    The most striking similarity I first noticed in all of these portraits is the seeming kindness found there. Even Kant’s eyes seem as though they do more smiling than frowning, and I note that the anonymous painter of the first took pains to make him seem more stern than naturally, as his brow actually glowers. The Dobler portrait shows his eyes as more childlike, though weathered.

    The eyes of all the rest, even those of de la Tour, could almost be switched without changing much of the character of any concerned.

    Well-written and thought-provoking piece, Sir. I’m glad to have read it.

    Yours Truly,


    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Both Eyes Shut:

      Thanks much for your generous comments about this post. I have to admit that I hesitated to post it as being not very substantial, so I am very pleased to get some positive feedback on it. Otherwise, I might have believed it to be a mistake.

      I had not previously noticed how the eyes in Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s portraits are almost as similar as his smiles, but now that you mention it I see that you are right. And in so far as the eyes are the window to the soul, rendering eyes indifferently is either a serious failing of a portraitist, or it is a statement. Given that Maurice Quentin de La Tour is one of the great portraitists of the Enlightenment, and almost exclusively a portraitist (I don’t know of any works by him that are not portraits, although I suspect that there are many), I strongly suspect that we see in the interchangeable eyes of Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s subjects the universality of Enlightenment man, possessed of no distinctive individual traits — neither race nor religion nor anything as parochial as a local culture — but also possessed of universally and necessarily applicable natural rights and the rights of man and citizen.

      You are also right about the kindness, and that is another thing that I hadn’t noticed. One can believe, in looking at these portraits of Kant and Mozart, and they honestly felt the kind of universal love of mankind that would be appropriate to the Enlightenment. Moreover, since they felt this universal love of mankind on a visceral and instinctive level, they lived it. It was not a pose or a pretense. It is important to remember this when attempting to recapture the Weltanschauung of the Enlightenment, which is too often dismissed for its shallowness and superficiality.

      When next I visit a good academic library (or even a good book store) I am going to continue to research the two Kant portraits here reproduced, because I would like to know why the Döbler portrait is only available on the internet in black and white from a photograph from a book (was the original lost in the war?) and I would like to try to find out something about the anonymous portrait, which I suspect is not from 1790 but dates from the nineteenth century. I would like to know if the original still exists, and, if so, where it is to be seen.

      Best wishes,


  2. […] and PeopleAddFind Questions, Topics or PeopleComment  Anon User Take a look to this: http://geopolicraticus.wordpress… It's a ver… (more) Sign up for free to read the full text. Login if you already have an […]

  3. […] — Portrait of Kant completed (by anonymous painter). Unclear, to borrow an idea, whether the artist portrayed his forehead as gigantic to illustrate his philosophical tendencies […]

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