In 1769, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father, Leopold, embarked on a tour of Italy. (At the time, proficiency in the Italian operatic style was a requirement for any respectable composer.) Then only 13 years old, Mozart was already known for his prodigious talent, having regaled the upper crust with performances around Europe.
During a visit to Verona, one listener was so impressed by Mozart that he actually commissioned a portrait of the young musician. Later this month, Reuters reports, this same painting will be sold by Christie’s auction house for an estimated $883,233 to $1,324,850.
Dated to 1770, the work is a bonafide rarity: According to Christie’s, it is one of only five confirmed portraits of Mozart painted directly from life. (Experts have authenticated 14 life portraits of Mozart to date, but the other nine are group portraits.)
Peering out from the painting’s gilded frame, a rosy-cheeked Mozart turns toward the viewer, his fingers lightly pressing the keys of a harpsichord. He wears a powdered wig and luxurious red coat; the ring glistening on his pinky finger is likely one gifted to him by German prince Joseph Wenzel von Fürstenberg in exchange for a concert.
“Mozart’s famously large and alert eyes glare at the viewer as if he has just been interrupted mid-recital,” says Astrid Centner, Christie’s head of Old Master paintings in Paris, in a statement.
Resting atop the harpsichord is a piece of sheet music known only from this painting. A section of one sheet is cut off at the edge of the canvas, but the artist still manages to cram the entire score into a single scene. Per Christie’s, music experts are divided over whether the work was penned by a young Mozart or another composer—perhaps Venice’s Baldassare Galuppi.
Somewhat unusually for a centuries-old painting, the portrait’s provenance is thoroughly documented. As Centner tells Reuters, “It is one of the very rare paintings for which we know about the history since the beginning.”
Pietro Lugiati, Receiver-General for the Venetian Republic and member of a powerful Veronese family, commissioned the work while hosting Mozart and his father during their stay in the city. The portrait is set against the backdrop of Lugiati’s music room, according to the auction house, and the harpsichord featured in the scene probably belonged to him.
Lugiati was decidedly awed by his young guest’s skill. In a letter to Mozart’s mother, he described the child as a “miracle of nature in music.” In the same letter, Lugiati informed Anna Maria Mozart that he’d had a winsome portrait made of her son, writing, “I have conceived such a regard for him that I had him painted from life.”
Leopold Mozart provided additional details on the painting’s creation, telling his wife in a January 1770 letter that the portrait was painted over the course of two sittings.
He explained, “The receiver general of Venice, Signor Lugiati, had asked the cavalieri to obtain my permission for Wolfg. to have his portrait painted; this took place yesterday morning, and he was to have a second sitting today after church.”
The group’s plans were temporarily waylaid when “an even more powerful or greater man appeared, namely the Bishop of Verona, from the house of Giustiniani, who sent word ... that he not only wanted us to call on him after church but also to have lunch with him.” After the bishop heard that a portrait of Mozart was currently in the works, he agreed to let father and son lunch with their host—but nevertheless “still kept us until after 1 o’clock,” according to Leopold.
Experts are not entirely certain who painted the portrait, but the most likely candidate is Giambettino Cignaroli, a leading Veronese artist who was also a cousin of Lugiati.
“[Cignaroli] wrote that Mozart and his father had visited his studio,” says Centner in the statement. “But an alternative attribution to Saverio dalla Rosa, Cignaroli’s nephew, has been suggested. It could also even be by a combination of both hands.”
Whoever its creator was, the portrait serves as a testament to the magnetic pull that Mozart, even as a child, could hold over his audience.
“This charming likeness of him is my solace,” Lugiati wrote in his letter to Anna Maria, “and serves moreover as incitement to return to his music now and again.”