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Johann Heinrich Lips

(1758 Kloten – 1817 Zurich)

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in a Medallion. Engraving. 35.6 x 29.7 cm. (1791). Brun 87; Rollett (Goethebildnisse) 39; Zarncke 25; Nagler 27; Heller-Andresen 7.

One of the finest and deservedly most famous portraits of Goethe, showing him in his forty-second year. The poet had returned from his Italian journey a few years earlier and found it hard to readjust to the provincial confines of Weimar society. The author of the portrait, the Swiss engraver and painter Johann Heinrich Lips, had lived in Rome at the same time as Goethe and established friendly relations with him there. At Goethe’s suggestion Lips was appointed a professor at Weimar’s Drawing Academy in 1789. Goethe personally supervised the production of his portrait and was evidently very pleased with the outcome. Lips has portrayed his patron from the front, the shoulders and upper body being rendered only in part. The opening of his overcoat shows a white linen shirt and a nonchalantly knotted kerchief, which gives the portrait an informal touch. The artist has concentrated totally on rendering the facial expression in a convincing way. Goethe looks at us with an almost beseeching gaze; the wide open eyes with the very dark pupils have something verging on the visionary about them, as though Lips wanted to emphasize that there is no escaping the fascination of this universal genius. The extremely subtle and nuanced technique contributes to the allure of this uniquely gripping portrait.

A brilliant, crisp and contrasting trial proof, before letters. According to Rollett, there is in addition to the impressions with text a subsequent state, in which the white margin outside the medallion is filled with engraved parallel lines.

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