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A meeting of the Muses

Angelica Kauffmann, Anna Amalia and Goethe in Germany

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 years.

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 duchess.

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 to follow.

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 to painting.

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 lady."

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.


A Difficult Choice

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 to follow.

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 superb linguist.

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 of beauty."

A gallery of women who possessed more than one artistic gift

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848), German composer and poet

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 and playwright

Emilie Mayer (1821-1883), German composer and sculptor

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), French actress, painter, sculptor, playwright

Select Bibliography

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 York, 1979

Hohendorf, Horst, The Life and Times of Goethe, Curtis Books, Philadelphia, 1967

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)

© 2002


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