The cult of Beethoven, Franz von Stuck and Antoine Bourdelle

The cult of Beethoven, Franz von Stuck and Antoine Bourdelle

  • Ludwig Van Beethoven.

    BOURDELLE Antoine (1861 - 1921)

  • Beethoven.

    STUCK Franz von (1863 - 1928)

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Title: Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Author : BOURDELLE Antoine (1861 - 1921)

Creation date : 1903

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 68 - Width 34

Technique and other indications: Depth: 35 cm Bronze

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Orsay Museum) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

Picture reference: 95-022198 / RF1395; LUX233

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Orsay Museum) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

To close

Title: Beethoven.

Author : STUCK Franz von (1863 - 1928)

Creation date : 1900

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 48 - Width 48

Technique and other indications: Depth: 1.4 cm Plaster, polychromy

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Picture reference: 08-505462 / RF4398

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Publication date: April 2012

CNRS Researcher Center for Research on Arts and Language

Historical context

Beethoven's reception at the end of the nineteenth century

"Germany's greatest poets are its musicians, a wonderful family of which Beethoven is the leader": this is how Victor Hugo, in 1864, proclaimed his admiration for Beethoven. In France, Romain Rolland (1866-1944), a music historian before becoming a novelist, wrote a monumental Life of Beethoven in the first years of the XXe century, while the composer Vincent d´Indy (1851-1931) devoted in 1911 a study to the author of the Pastoral symphony, a work from which André Gide (1869-1951), another great writer-musician, will borrow the title for one of his best-known stories. Around 1900, Beethoven also inspired many artists: while Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) designed a “Beethoven frieze” in Vienna, the Bavarian painter Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) sculpts a face of the composer. For his part, the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), obsessed throughout his life by the character of Beethoven, produced in 1903 one of his many portraits of the German musician.

Image Analysis

The mask of genius

The polychrome high relief of Beethoven executed by Franz von Stuck was to take place in the villa which the painter had built and furnished in Munich in 1897-1898 according to his own plans. It houses a music room which he had originally planned to adorn with effigies of famous composers, including Beethoven. This portrait was directly inspired by the "mask of life" (cast on the musician's face in 1812), but Franz von Stuck gave it three important elements: color, hair and eyes. The contrast between the red-brown background, the black hair and the white, ghostly face evokes a sudden appearance: Beethoven's head seems to emerge from the stone. The tousled, full hair, often depicted in this way, represents the artist’s indomitable energy, fiery spirit and freedom. They frame a resolute, extremely focused, almost wicked-looking face: the eyebrows are furrowed, the lips tight, the nose slightly swollen. Beethoven seems possessed by a force which must be discharged imminently. But it is above all the eyes that are remarkable: while on the “mask of life” Beethoven's eyes were closed, Franz von Stuck chose to sculpt them and give them a magnetic power, so that the fixity of this gaze hypnotizes the viewer.

This Beethoven head by Bourdelle is contemporary with the sculpture by Franz von Stuck. This is one of the many portraits that the sculptor made until his death in all possible materials (bronze, granite, stone, marble, terracotta). Impressed by the face of Beethoven, Bourdelle did not stop (from 1887-1888) drawing, painting and sculpting it. This bronze head once again evokes the “mask of life” of 1812: this time, the musician has his eyes closed. The expression of extreme concentration and closed eyes can be interpreted as the symbol of the inner world that Beethoven, who was deaf and suffered from this confinement, sought to express in his works. The accumulated energy is released in the messy hair, which seems to live on with its own life and overwhelm the composer's face. This tormented image forms a contrast with the base, cubic and stripped down, on which Bourdelle engraved this sentence: “I am Bacchus who squeezes delicious nectar for men. Beethoven. "Bourdelle therefore equates the musician with the god of dance and drunkenness, with Bacchus-Dionysos, whom Nietzsche already, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), related to the author of the "Hymn to Joy". Beethoven is a beneficent genius, a divine being who brings to men, through the grace of his music, the "nectar" of the ancient gods, without committing any sacrilege like Prometheus or Tantalus.


Two sacred images

These two works proceed from a similar desire: it is a question of establishing the cult of Beethoven, divine man, priest of a new religion, possessed like the Pythia or the Bacchant. The high relief sculpted by von Stuck resembles an icon: the musician, a terrible god, freezes and fascinates the viewer with his lightning gaze and must provoke in him a reaction of dread and submission. Bourdelle's bronze head is likened to the head of a god, a beneficent and tormented deity, suffering the pangs of creation for the good of humanity. And although this Beethoven head still bears the trace of Rodin's influence, the simplification of the hair and the harshness of the musician's features indicate an evolution of the sculptor towards a more personal style, which will be asserted in particular in 1909 in a another work, in a way the counterpart of this portrait: the Head of Apollo.

  • Beethoven (Ludwig van)
  • music
  • Gide (André)
  • sculpture
  • Klimt (Gustav)


DUFET Michel, Beethoven and Bourdelle, ARTED, 1970.BUCH Esteban, Beethoven's 9th Symphony. A political history, Gallimard, 1999. MENDGEN Eva, Franz von Stuck, Taschen, 1994.

To cite this article

Christophe CORBIER, "The cult of Beethoven, Franz von Stuck and Antoine Bourdelle"

Video: Masters of Photography