The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on October 18th, 2014

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven
by Oswald Barrett ('Batt'), oil on canvas, 1937
Royal Academy of Music Collections
This is one of my favorite portraits of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), painted by Oswald Barrett (who used the name “Batt” in his work) in 1937. It is the result of five years of research, and was intended to be one in a series of works depicting him in 1800, 1812, and 1826. The painter wrote:

“… one has to be an artist, musician, and detective rolled into one --- I searched back into time through every scrap of data, letters, biographies, etc., until I filtered out the very essence of the man and arrived at an aspect which must have been some phase of his existence as a human being, without any superimposed romance, legend or imagination. When I set to work on it I got so absorbed in it, partly because of my interest in the subject, and partly because I experienced difficulties of an abnormal kind. Because of the intensity of the vision I had, I dared not use any sort of model, and had to 'paint from life' without doing so. With a living model before me, a confusion between the character of the model and the character of my vision, which had been growing for five years, would have been inevitable. So I had to achieve the conviction and vitality of a painting from life without painting from life! ... I know there is probably more of the real Beethoven in it than in any other portrait, with the possible exception of the Klein bust, but that doesn't go all the way. But it is such a limitless subject that whatever one achieved, there would always be something more. The complete Beethoven could not be put into one portrait ... there was too much of him, and he changed so much; that is why I wanted to paint a series of him.”

The following work also appears to have been part of his continuing work on the series:
Plate 14 from The Oxford Companion to Music
by Percy A Scholes, Ninth Edition, Oxford University Press 1960
I am particularly fond of these portraits because they show so clearly how the composer must have appeared to the world during his time and yet, ironically, how little that outer appearance revealed of the inner man. Oh yes, this is the Beethoven of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, the first movement of the Opus 13 “Pathetique” and last movement of the Opus 14 “Moonlight” piano sonatas. But buried beneath the granite, angst, and drama of those kinds of works there existed a realm of very refined and poignant sensibilities wherein beauty, delicacy, longing, loneliness, hope, and even sublimity resided. In a previous post called BEETHOVEN’S STUFF I wrote about my personal experiences with some of Beethoven’s material possessions and how inadequate they proved to be in getting closer to the spirit of the man. And in the final analysis, isn’t the body just another “possession,” another material thing that we employ as a vehicle to carry out our daily activities? Isn’t it only as fully expressive of our inner worlds as we allow it to be?

Seeing the real-life Beethoven of these illustrations, many people were at least a little put off by him during his own time. They were often frightened or intimidated by both his appearance and his larger-than-life personality, as he could indeed be harsh and intimidating. And he appears to have been reluctant to let his softer side show for fear of ridicule, criticism, and rejection. So to “complete the coin,” so to speak, to show both sides of this incredible musical personality, here is an intimate peek into the other side of Beethoven’s nature to help give dimension to these portraits of the outer man. For Beethoven was not merely a man, he was an unfathomable pool in whose work we can all find our deepest selves reflected.

Posted in MUSIC    Tagged with Beethoven, beauty, Beethoven Portrait, Oswald Barrett, Batt, Beethoven's Stuff, portraits


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