Thursday 19 September 2019

What Lies Beneath: Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Christian Horneman

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Christian Horneman, Oil on ivory. Courtesy Beethoven Haus, Bonn

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Christian Horneman
Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Christian Horneman

Niall MacMonagle

The van Beethovens lived in Bonn where world-famous Ludwig was born, either today or yesterday in 1770.

Grandfather sang bass, father sang tenor and Beethoven, aged eight, was a keyboard prodigy. One of seven children, only three of whom survived, his alcoholic, cruel father exploited his eldest son's genius.

Beethoven's mother died when he was 17, and by 19 he was responsible for his sacked, unemployed father and his two brothers. He played viola and taught to support the family. By 1795, his father three years dead, brothers employed, Beethoven moved to Vienna and there Danish artist Christian Horneman painted this miniature portrait of the 33-year-old composer.

By then he was going deaf. In a letter, written on October 6, 1802, to his brothers and "to be read after my death", Beethoven "hopelessly afflicted" spoke of his deafness and felt that "I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished".

Horneman, whose father and grandfather were composers, left Denmark aged 22, spent 12 years studying art in France, Italy and Germany. When he painted this handsome portrait, Beethoven had completed his Third Symphony, the Eroica, and he liked the portrait so much that he sent it to a childhood friend whom he had fallen out with by way of reconciliation.

We know from contemporary accounts that Beethoven was argumentative, unhygienic, that he liked to count out 60 coffee beans for breakfast. Here he is fresh-faced, spruce in a brass-buttoned, royal blue frockcoat and elegant neckcloth. The feathery hair looks shampooed, conditioned. His brown eyes, nose, philtrum, the dimpled chin all hold the viewer. Horneman gives us Beethoven in his prime.

Back in Denmark Horneman was appointed Royal Danish miniature painter, became an Academy member, a professor.

Beethoven earned greater acclaim - but when he conducted the premiere of the Ninth, in 1824, he heard neither the music nor the tumultuous applause.

Although not a practising Catholic, when he died, aged 56, Beethoven received the Last Rites, a Requiem Mass and 20,000 people attended his funeral. His last words were, apocryphally, "I shall hear in Heaven".

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