by Pamela Blevins
In the pre-dawn quiet of a September morning in
1786, the writer Johann Goethe, slipped across the Bohemian border carrying
only a rucksack and large valise. Tired of his governmental duties at
the court of Weimar and wanting to escape the "eternal, gloomy fog"
of northern Europe, he set off on an Italian journey that lasted two
Goethe's mid-life crisis at 37 would ultimately
bring together two of the most celebrated and gifted women in Europe
-- the painter Angelica Kauffmann and the composer-patron Anna Amalia,
the Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar.
Goethe had settled in Weimar in 1775. He soon became
the central figure in Anna Amalia's famous Court of the Muses, which
glowed with the literary lights of Germany who gathered around the intellectual
A niece of Frederick the Great, Anna Amalia was
born at Wolfenbüttel in 1739. Like her uncle Frederick and his
two sisters, she showed musical talent early. She studied the keyboard
and musical composition and pursued her passions for art, writing and
languages, particularly Greek and Latin.
Early in life, she distanced herself from her
parents, convinced that they preferred her brothers and sisters. In
1756, she left their court (Brunswick) when she married 18-year-old
Duke Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. Upon arriving at her new home in Weimar,
she found Johann Ernst Bach, a nephew of J. S. Bach, serving as music
director and she hired a composer, Ernst Wilhelm Wolff, to give her
private lessons. The seeds for her Court of the Muses were planted.
Anna had one infant son and was awaiting the arrival
of a second child when her 19-year-old husband died. She was unexpectedly
thrust into leadership roles as guardian of her two children and Regent
at the helm of Saxe-Weimar until her son Karl August would be old enough
to take over in 1775.
Able to draw on her own interest in the arts, Anna
Amalia found herself in an enviable position. She could easily enliven
her court with intellectuals and artists and fulfill the role that contented
her most -- as the patron and friend of other artists.
Not long after Goethe's arrival in Weimar, Anna
Amalia composed two Singspiels (opera with spoken dialogue) to texts
by the young poet-novelist. Her setting of Erwin und Elmire with
its folk-like character became a popular entertainment that has endured
to the present day. As a composer, she was a proficient miniaturist
who wrote songs and harpsichord sonatas and occasionally produced successful
works in larger forms.
Despite her varied gifts and a growing respect
among her peers for her musical achievements, Anna Amalia had no lofty
ambitions beyond providing artists like Goethe with a "true home" and
a "spiritual family." She was simply content to remain an amateur, a
choice which left her ample time to pursue her own studies, collect
art, discuss ideas and provide an avenue of enlightenment for others
In 1788, two years after Goethe had left Weimar,
Anna Amalia decided to follow in his footsteps. His letters had painted
irresistible word portraits of Venice, Naples, Rome, and an Italian
landscape bathed in warm color and alive with scents and sounds. His
accounts of friendships with poets, artists, musicians and scholars
living and working in Rome intrigued the duchess.
The central figure among Goethe's new friends was
the Swiss-born painter Angelica Kauffmann. Two years younger than the
Duchess, Kauffmann had settled in Rome in 1782 with her husband Antonio
Zucchi, also a painter.
As a child prodigy, she had traveled in Switzerland,
Austria and Northern Italy with her father, a minor painter, assisting
him in church decoration. She received her first portrait commission
at the age of 11 and by her early twenties had been elected to membership
in the prestigious Accademia di San Luca in Rome where she and her father
lived for a brief period.
In addition to her gift as a painter, Kauffmann
was also a fine musician who possessed a beautiful singing voice which
forced her to choose between the two arts. After much debating, she
finally rejected the "dubious" life of a singer and committed herself
Many years later in 1794 when she was 53, she recalled
this difficult time in her life in a masterwork entitled The Artist
Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting.
Like Anna Amalia, Kauffmann was a highly original
woman who influenced the lives and work of others. During the 15 years
she lived in England (1766-1781), she charmed London society and became
a leading painter whose portraits and historical canvases commanded
large sums of money. Only a year after arriving in the city, "the poetess
of the brush" was able to buy a house.
Eventually Kauffmann paid a high personal price
for her success. Her popularity led to jealousy and discord among artists
and opened her personal life to misrepresentation. The painter John
Constable branded her "decadent."
Kauffmann married Zucchi in 1781 and left England
for the Continent, staying first in Venice before moving on to Rome.
Once settled in Rome, she was acknowledged as the most successful painter
living in the city. Society revolved around her. Poets immortalized
her in verse and people in the streets saluted her passing carriage.
As he had done in Weimar, Goethe attracted much
attention in Rome. He was soon the favored companion of Angelica Kauffmann,
accompanying her to museums, sitting for his portrait, reading his poems
and plays to her. She designed the frontispiece for his play Egmont
and painted a scene from Iphigenie which, he wrote, "shows both
her delicate sensibility and her capacity to translate life into terms
of her own medium." To Goethe, Angelica Kauffmann was "the inestimable
When Anna Amalia announced plans for her own Italian
journey in the autumn of 1789, Goethe devised a program for her visit
that was "a masterpiece" of planning. Knowing that a strong artistic
affinity existed between the Duchess and Kauffmann he ensured that they
would meet and felt confident that a friendship would blossom. He found
a beautiful house with a garden for Anna Amalia and arranged for her
to spend her first month in Rome absorbing its art and antiquities primarily
in the company of Angelica Kauffmann.
How rare it was for two gifted and celebrated women
to meet as men met, freely and openly as equals sharing their passions
for music and painting, discussing their ideas, their working methods,
and their disappointments and achievements in their chosen arts. Angelica
Kauffmann drew the Duchess into her world and made her welcome. They
toured museums, attended grand dinners and concerts and undoubtedly
Kauffmann introduced the Duchess to dealers who helped her locate and
purchase books, music, coins, engravings of antiquities and paintings
to add to Weimar's already fine Italian collections.
Anna Amalia journeyed beyond Rome in the company
of others, visiting Naples and Pompeii where Wilhelm Tischbein painted
her among the ruins. Upon returning to the city, the Duchess rented
a villa near Kauffmann's home. The two women continued to meet frequently
until Anna Amalia left the city in May 1789 to continue her Italian
journey. She returned to Weimar in the summer of 1790, "well and contented
as one is when one returns from paradise," Goethe wrote.
Angelica Kauffmann remained in Rome for the rest
of her life. After the death of her husband in 1795, she became less
active as an artist. The Napoleonic campaigns in Italy had ebbed the
flow of visitors to Rome and Kauffmann's commissions declined. However,
she had become a wealthy woman and was no longer dependent on her art
for her income.
The two women did not meet again, but they did
come together again in 1807 for Goethe who mourned the deaths of the
two most influential women in his life. Anna Amalia, the Duchess of
Saxe-Weimar died on April 10 and Angelica Kauffmann followed her seven
months later when she died on November 5.
Throughout the ages women have made great contributions
to art, music and literature. Many, like Angelica Kauffmann, possessed
more than one artistic gift and had to decide early in life which path
Maria Malibran (1808-1836), Spanish opera
singer, was also a gifted artist who painted portraits seriously and
drew caricatures to amuse herself. She was also an avid sportswoman
and a highly accomplished equestrian.
Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910), French-born
Spanish opera singer, was the younger sister of Malibran. Throughout
her long life she faced many personal dilemmas about her direction in
the arts. She was a fine painter who could easily have made a success
in that field but chose instead to follow the family tradition in opera.
After she left the stage, she was encouraged to pursue a career as a
virtuoso pianist (she had studied with Liszt) but preferred instead
to compose music for family and friends and to teach. She was also a
Augusta Holmès (1847-1903), Irish-French
composer, who had to choose between a career in music or in painting.
She chose music but eventually put her skills as an artist to good use
to design costumes and scenery for her own stage works. She was also
an accomplished poet and possessed a gift for languages.
Lady John Scott (Alica Anne Spottiswood),
(1810-1900), Scottish composer, known for the famous song "Annie
Laurie", was also a poet and artist (she studied watercolor
with Peter DeWint). Her drawings were often used to illustrate articles
which appeared in archaeology journals.
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), English composer
and writer. After her hearing began to fade, she turned her creative
energy to words and earned a reputation as a "writer of genius" producing
travel books and autobiography.
Maud Powell (1867-1920), American violinist.
A child-prodigy, Powell began her professional career as a violinist
at the age of 15 when she toured England. From childhood, Maud Powell
was as comfortable with a pencil in her hand as she was with the violin.
Throughout her extensive travels as a touring violinist, Powell filled
notebooks with skillful drawings of "striking faces...amusing incidents
seen on the street...and bits of woodland scenes appealing to her sense
A gallery of women who possessed more than one artistic gift
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848), German composer
Madeleine Dring (1923-1977), English composer and actress
Angiola Teresa Moratori (1662-1708), Italian composer and painter
Joyce Finzi (1907-1991) English musician, artist and poet
Julie Candeille (1767-1834) French composer, actress, singer
Emilie Mayer (1821-1883), German composer and sculptor
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), French actress, painter, sculptor,
Ambrose, Jane and Blevins, Pamela, "The Triumph of Art: Musical Life
at the House of Prussia," The Maud Powell Signature Women in Music,
Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1995
Boyle, Nicholas, Goethe The Poet and the Age, Volume One: The Poetry
of Desire, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1991
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Italian Journey, translated by W.H.
Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, Penguin Books, London, 1970
Greer, Germaine, The Obstacle Race, Farrar Straus Giroux, New
Hohendorf, Horst, The Life and Times of Goethe, Curtis Books,
Select Discography for Anna Amalia
Anna Amalia, the Duchess of Saxe-Weimar, Erwin und Elmire, Gemini
Hall Records, RAP 1010 (1975) (Rare LP)
Auf dem Lande und in der Stadt, also, Sie Scheinen
zu spielen, Deutsche Grammophon 2533149 (Rare LP)
Concerto for Twelve Instruments and Cembalo, also, Divertimento
for Strings and Piano, Vox Turnabout, TV 34754 (LP)