The Swabian Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is one of the most fascinating sculptors of the Enlightenment. He enjoyed great success working in Vienna for the imperial family under Maria Theresa and was one of the first artists of his time to break with the traditional formula for grand Baroque portraits in favour of Neoclassicism. Due to a personal crisis around 1770, both his work and life circumstances took a radical turn, which resulted in his most famous group of works, the studies of heads known today as Character Heads.
Born into humble beginnings in 1736, Messerschmidt learned the skills of his craft from his uncle, the Munich court sculptor Johann Baptist Straub. Then, after having completed his studies at the Vienna Academy, he took up a position as a bronze chaser at the Imperial Armoury in Vienna’s Renngasse.
The gilded bronze busts of Maria Theresa and Francis I Stephen of Lorraine for the Imperial Hall in the Armoury were his first major commission. Messerschmidt’s early works – the statues of the imperial couple, the reliefs of Joseph II and his consort, and the gilded bronze bust of Gerard van Swieten – fulfil all of the requirements of Baroque representational portraiture and demonstrate integration into Vienna’s artistic tradition.
From the beginning of the 1770s, the curves and pathos of the Baroque yielded to a cooler austerity and relentless precision in the rendering of a likeness. With his aggressive skill in characterization, Messerschmidt prepared the way for truth in the portrayal of individuals. This absolute break with tradition must have come as a result of a critical change in his life. His illness, failure at the Academy, and loss of clients drove Messerschmidt into isolation. He moved to Pressburg (now Bratislava), where his most famous group of works today, the studies of heads known as Character Heads, was created.
Messerschmidt worked obsessively on these altogether 69 heads, the majority of whose faces are contorted into extreme grimaces. The spectrum of heads, which he conversationally referred to as his ‘Portreen’ – portraits – extends from natural-appearing busts modelled after those of antiquity to heads with exaggerated, highly expressive facial features whose supreme exertions manifest emotions that defy interpretation. With its 16 original heads, the Belvedere possesses not only the world’s largest collection from this group of works, but also numerous plaster casts of the total of 54 extant works. Messerschmidt died in Pressburg in 1783.
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