Experts Are Weeding Out Impostor Portraits of Mozart

Experts want to do away with the romanticized conceptions of what Mozart looked like, or those of a white-wigged, red-jacketed young man at the piano

An unfinished portrait of Mozart, from 1782.
An unfinished portrait of Mozart, from 1782. Joseph Lange

Our idea of what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart looked like may be molded by influences such as the movie Amadeus or the wrappers of Kugeln candy. Some researchers take this quest to pin down the composer’s face quite seriously, however. In Salzburg, experts have been combing through suspected portraits, weeding out impostor Mozarts and confirming those that are legitimate. The New York Times reports:

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 researchers, part of the International Mozarteum Foundation, say they want to do away with the romanticized conceptions of what Mozart looked like—those images of a white-wigged, red-jacketed young man sitting at the piano.

Fourteen images of the musician are known to exist from Mozart’s lifetime. To provide a more accurate public depiction of the artist, the Foundation is putting on a show featuring 12 of those works.

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.

One long-standing Mozart portrait was chucked out, however. In 1924, the Foundation bought a painting of a young boy holding a bird’s nest next to a table with an open book on it from a British art dealer. Inscribed on the open book was “W.A. Mozart 1764,” presumably standing for “Wolfgang Amadeus.” But Mozart rarely went by “Amadeus” in his lifetime, preferring the German form of the name, “Gottlieb,” instead. Doubts lingered about the painting’s authenticity and were confirmed when the inscription turned out to be an addition made years later—probably around 1906.

A portrait on tortoise shell snuffbox turned out to be the opposite, however. Acquired in 1956, the box shows an angelic face surrounded with curly hair and dark eyes. The inscription reads “Johann Mozart, 1783″—the composer’s first given name. The Foundation found a document confirming that Mozart had owned such a snuffbox and had given it as a gift to a friend, whose brother then painted a miniature of Mozart. It’s now considered the only head-on portrait of Mozart that exists from after 1781.

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