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The Portraits of Sebastian Bach

I am going to begin this survey of the portraits of Johann Sebastian Bach, authentic and inauthentic, with an image that is not often seen. It is an early 19th century print that is based on the famous 1746 Haussmann portrait; this version of the print appeared as the frontispiece of C. F. Abdy-Williams's 1900 monograph on the composer.

Loading 63K - J. S. Bach - Breitkopf print (1900 reprint)

The print is based on the earlier of two versions that Haussmann painted. That original, which for many years hung in the Thomasschule in Leipzig, has not fared well over the years, and it has been heavily restored. Here is a black and white photograph of that 1746 portrait, which now hangs in the Altes Rathaus in Leipzig, taken before the most recent of the many attempts that have been made to restore it.

Loading 100K- J. S. Bach (1746 Haussmann portrait)

The second version of the painting, which almost certainly is the one that belonged to Bach's second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, has fared much, much better. Were it not for the craquelure, it would seem to have been painted last month, it is so well preserved! For nearly 50 years it has been in the collection of William H. Scheide, the founder and first director of The Bach Aria Group. Because it has been reproduced frequently, it is now perhaps the likeness of the composer that is best known to the general public. Here is a close-up of the face:

Loading 83K - J. S. Bach (1748 portrait - detail)

The 1748 Haussmann portrait is the best preserved of the two versions of the only likeness of Sebastian Bach that is unquestionably authentic. As such, it has to be the standard against which all of the others are judged.

Among the most convincing of the others is the so-called "Volbach" portrait, named after the distinguished musicologist and conductor who discovered it in an antique shop nearly 100 years ago, and to whose son it still belonged in the late 1960s. (Where it is today, I do not know.) It survived World War II because it had been locked away for safekeeping in a subterranean bank vault. Although a number of cogent arguments have been advanced against the authenticity of this remarkable image, one can easily consider it authentic, a powerful depiction of the composer in the last months of his life, worn down by years of battling with his superiors and aged by the stress of his cataract operation at the hands of the opthalmological pioneer, the Chevalier Taylor.

Loading 78K - The "Volbach Portrait of J. S. Bach [?]

Another compelling, but definitely posthumous, image is the sculpture that Wilhelm His carved in 1895, based on the reconstruction of the composer's head that he built up on a cast of the composer's then recently exhumed skull, using the most recent pathological and medical information about skin and muscle thickness, and taking the 1746 Haussmann portrait as a guide.

Loading 72K - J. S. Bach - Bust by His (image 4) Loading 77K - J. s. Bach - Bust by His (image 1)

His also used this sculpture as the model for the life-sized statue of Sebastian Bach that stands in the Thomaskirchof in Leipzig, next to the Thomaskirche, and in front of the site of the Thomasschule, in which Bach lived and fulfilled many of his professional duties in the last 27 years of his life.

Loading 63K - J. S. Bach - bronze by His (detail)

As powerful and as accurate as the facial features seem, the statue itself seems a trifle "Romantic" for modern eyes and psyches, but, like many other even more romanticized images from the same period, it reflects a then standard portrayal of Bach, the man, as both an individual and as a figure within his time that later research has shown to be less than accurate. Nonetheless, for many, even now, that is the image of Bach that is most familiar.

The 1748 Haussmann portrait may be the best known today, but, even 40 years ago, most people saw Bach through the eyes of Louis Lupas, who based his famous pastel, still widely circulated on calendars and as an inexpensive print, on this late 19th century engraving.

Loading 73K - J. s. Bach - the "Lupas" portrait

The "boom" in images of Johann Sebastian Bach is not restricted to posthumous, romanticized "interpretations". Over the years, a number of portraits have surfaced that have been put forth as being "lost" images of the composer. Some of these have a better pedigree than others.

The earliest of these is a portrait that is ascribed to Johann Ernst Rentsch; it is alleged that this portrait, which has also been heavily restored, depicts Bach during his years as a member of the ducal musical establishment in Weimar.

Loading 76K - J. S. Bach, ca. 1712 (?) (Portrait by J. E. Rentsch)

There is no independent evidence other than a perceived physical similarity to confirm that the portrait in fact depicts Sebastian Bach, but it does, nevertheless, give a good idea of what he might have looked like in his 20s.

To be continued....

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teritowe@alumni.Princeton.EDU


Copyright, Teri Noel Towe, 1997
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