Portraits of mystery: Which one is Mozart?

Daniel J. Wakin / New York Times News Service /


Published Feb 7, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

In the impossible search to know what the face of musical genius looked like, researchers in Salzburg, Austria, have made progress. Their subject was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a local boy.

One portrait long thought to be of Mozart turned out to be someone else. A suspect image was confirmed to be of him. And a third portrait, deemed incomplete, was actually found to consist of a finished piece grafted onto a larger canvas.

The International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, announced the findings last month in conjunction with an exhibition of Mozart portraits that opened Jan. 26 and runs through April 14. One goal, the foundation said, was to burn away idealized conceptions of Mozart — a white-wigged, red-jacketed, romanticized figure — and focus attention on what he might really have looked like.

Fourteen images created in Mozart’s lifetime are known to exist, sometimes reproduced in different mediums, like oil paintings, engravings or medallions. The Mozarteum holds examples of nine and has borrowed three others for the show. The remaining lifetime portraits were not available, said Gabriele Ramsauer, director of the foundation’s museums and of the Mozart birthplace.

The exhibition speaks to a yearning within the living to know the past, by knowing the face of someone whose work lives on so powerfully in our own time.

“It’s an emotional question,” Ramsauer said. “Mozart is such a universal genius. Everybody knows him. Everybody takes part of his life.”

Research done before the show altered assumptions held for decades.

In 1924 a British art dealer sold the Mozarteum a portrait of a boy in a long brown jacket holding a bird’s nest, standing in front of a round table with an open book on it. When the foundation bought the painting, “W.A. Mozart 1764” was inscribed on a page of the book. An engraving of the portrait commissioned by the art dealer and now in the Vienna Museum included the name. The initials stand for Wolfgang Amadeus.

But doubts lingered about the authenticity of the identification, Ramsauer said, in part because Mozart rarely used “Amadeus” in his lifetime; “Gottlieb,” the German form, was his preferred usage.

When curators examined the painting recently, the name was missing from the book page. A search of the Mozarteum archives found a 1928 restoration report that said all overpainting had been removed, including the “W.A. Mozart” inscription.

“Now we are sure that one of the former owners had made these overpaintings, and had published this engraving in 1906, to sell this portrait,” Ramsauer said. “We were always wondering why Mozart should be painted with a bird’s nest in his hand.”