Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
The Ill-Humored Man and Portrait Bust of Empress Maria-Theresa
© 2004 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert - Österreichische Galerie, Belvedere, Vienna
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing
© Bruxelles, Photo d’Art
January 28–April 25, 2011
Source: Louvre Museum, Paris
The exhibition comprises some thirty works, including the head acquired by Louvre in 2005, which is joined by exceptional loans from several German museums, the Belvedere and the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, museums in Budapest and Bratislava, and private collections. This event is part of a special series this season at the Louvre celebrating the 18th century
Apprenticed at the age of ten to his uncle, Johannes Baptist Straub, a renowned sculptor in wood active in Munich, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt moved to Vienna in 1755 and enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts. Working at the Arsenal, he became proficient in metal sculpting techniques. In 1765, Messerschmidt traveled to Rome for several months, and upon his return executed a series of spectacular portraits of the imperial couple and other major figures of the Viennese court, such as Prince Josef Wenzel I of Liechtenstein.
Appointed as adjunct professor of sculpture at the Academy in 1769, he continued to pursue his illustrious career as a portrait sculptor while teaching, through busts depicting prominent Enlightenment thinkers in Vienna. Messerschmidt’s enthusiastic zeal was cut to the quick when the Academy’s council of professors decided, with the consent of the State Chancellor, to award the coveted title of full professor to another faculty member. Severely discomfited and angered by this failure, which had been grounded in a perception among the authorities and his peers that Messerschmidt was mentally unbalanced, the sculptor left Vienna definitively on May 9, 1775. Following a brief return to his Bavarian roots, Messerschmidt was taken in by his brother in Pressburg (today Bratislava), at that time the Hungarian capital. There he worked exclusively on the series of busts he had begun in Vienna, known since the artist’s death as “character heads”, which were produced without commissions. Sculpted in metal (using alloys composed largely of tin and/or lead) and in alabaster, these heads convey the expressiveness of a master sculptor keen to depict the torments of the soul in all their extreme emotional variety.