South Africa: Text Messages | Portrait of an Artist

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With only the slimmest of visual archives of the musician who gave us The Magic Flute, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's sublime genius reaches us through his music.

In today's world of quickfire celebrity, selfies, Instagram and Facebook, anyone famous from the age of seven would by the age of 35 have had thousands of images of themselves circulated. Contrasting starkly with that, only 10 portraits survive of the greatest of composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart died on 5 December 1791, 228 years ago. Impoverished, Mozart at the end reminds one of how William Shakespeare described the death of his great playwright colleague Christopher Marlowe in As You Like It: "A great reckoning in a little room." In his brief life - he died just under eight weeks short of his 36th birthday - Mozart had played for emperors and empresses, cardinals and bishops, the nobility, society, princes and paupers, the bourgeoisie and the working class.

He had composed for them all, too, from symphonies and concertos to operas, masses and requiems. Perhaps most notably, Mozart's "genius had made of a popular singspiel [The Magic Flute] one of the most profound creations in all opera", as Jane Glover reminds readers in Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music (2005).

Almost from the outset, the scale, bustle and attainment of his life were enormous. As one of his biographers, Sir Michael Levey, writes: "By the age of eight, Mozart had travelled through many countries, had met many rulers and was himself a king ... A boy-king of a personally created kingdom - all-powerful yet benevolent - might be any child's brief dream of himself. With Mozart, it was more subtle and more significant." (The Life and Death of Mozart, 1971 and 1988) This was because the child prodigy, Levey explains, realised early that, "The most effective sovereign - indeed the only sort worth bothering about ... - is the artist."

The look of the man

Yet of the supreme artist Mozart we have only the slimmest and most sporadic of visual archives. One of the surviving portraits shows Mozart at seven, dressed in the lilac-coloured court suit given to him by the Empress Maria Theresa after he and his sister "Nannerl" (Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia) had performed for her. Self-possessed and relaxed, the prodigy gazes at the viewer, his left hand tucked between the middle buttons of his waistcoat, his right hand resting easily against it with his index and middle fingers extended in a sort of V.

Fourteen years later, a contained and wigged 21-year-old Mozart stares steadily out of a painting depicting him wearing the Order of the Golden Spur bestowed on him in person by Pope Clement XIV in Rome in 1770. In the set of the mouth, there is more than a hint of satisfaction and confident anticipation.

Another 12 years on and the aspect has become poignant, even foreboding. Drawn in silverpoint by Doris Stock in Dresden in 1789, Mozart is shown in profile, wigless, with the beginnings of a double chin and hair that is both greying and thinning at the forehead. Then there is the unfinished oil portrait, from 1789 or 1790, by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange. Here is Mozart, head inclined, eyes looking intently down at a keyboard that the painter has yet to supply. An air of acceptance, if not of resignation, hovers in the slight purse of the lips and somewhat bulbous eyes.

What is held to be the last portrait of Mozart was painted by Johann Georg Edlinger in 1790 - a partial representation of which is pictured above - at a Munich hotel where Mozart was a regular guest. But it was only in 2000 that Mozart's likeness was recognised, by Wolfgang Seiller, a descendant of Edlinger. Before then, the painting had languished in the vaults of the Berlin State Museum, which had bought it in 1934 for a mere 650 reichsmarks.

After Seiller floated his idea, the museum's chief curator of 18th-century art, Rainer Michaelis, conducted computer comparisons with a 1777 portrait of Mozart housed in a museum in Bologna, Italy. According to the machines, the faces in the two paintings were of the same man. This despite distinct differences to the human eye and the lingering orthodoxy that Mozart was emaciated towards his end whereas the "Edlinger Mozart" is a round-faced man, not quite bloated but neither thin nor drawn.

How to reconcile this chubbier Wolfgang with popular imagination's image of the man? Michaelis said that Mozart's puffy face shows that he had been treated with mercury and had died from either kidney failure or syphilis. The former has long been the preferred cause of death. Levey pointed out that "an infection of the kidneys may have been the cause of his childhood rheumatic illnesses; and drugs of the period, often containing arsenic, may have compounded the condition".

Whatever the cause, the act of death was awful. Levey again: "For those watching, it came to a dreadful conflict at the end between the dying man and the still creating musician: 'The last thing he did was to try and mouth the sound of the timpani in his Requiem. I can still hear that now.'" The quote is from the written testimony of his sister-in-law Sophie, the timpani part of which Glover cleverly contests on purely musical terms: smart, but a quibble nonetheless.

That we have only 10 likenesses of Mozart matters less ultimately because we have 626 of his musical works. As Robert W Gutman concludes in his magisterial Mozart: A Cultural Biography (1999): "Beloved of youth with its infinite longings and no less of age with its faded aspirations, he confronted his time and confronts posterity as a universal touchstone. Like all geniuses of his rank, he stands as a law to himself: incommensurable, incalculable, sublime."

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