Vincent de Luise
New Haven, Connecticut, United States (Spring 2018)
The music, life, and legacy of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, 1756 – 1791) continue to fascinate and enthrall.1,10,15,19, Footnote 1 Mozart has been the subject of more books, articles, and commentary than any composer in the Western canon. Mozart brought Classical style to its apotheosis, creating masterpieces in every musical genre: sonata, concerto, symphony, opera, chamber music, lieder, and choral and sacred works. Several of his last works presaged Romanticism. It has been said that to discover the real Mozart, one needs simply to listen to his music.
There have always been conflicting observations regarding Mozart ’s physical appearance. Many have tried to read ophthalmic and systemic disease into Mozart’s portraits, mostly without foundation. What are the possibilities and limitations, both artistic and medical, of what portraiture can reveal about Mozart, the man and the musician?
Of the hundreds of portraits of Mozart, only a few are attested.5,9,14,28,33,A,G The Mozart historian and iconographer Otto Erich Deutsch identified ten portraits that have provenance as authentic depictions of the composer, created during his lifetime.9,33 The vetted portraits and the recently contested inauthentic portraiture are tabulated in Table 1.
Iconography is a branch of art history and visual science that concerns the identification and interpretation of pictorial images, describing the meaning of a work of art in contradistinction to its form.23 Mozart iconography was initiated with Tenschert’s 1931 overview and Bory’s 1948 catalogue of Mozart portraiture.5,28 Deutsch and Zenger subsequently codified Mozart iconography, which has undergone further analysis and debate over the decades.9,33
Mozart has been described as the most famous person whose true likeness is the least recognized.17 Mozart’s sister Nannerl stated that “I have to say that I have never seen so many portraits (of my brother) that are so different when seen side by side, but that nevertheless essentially all look like him.”3,14 The early twentieth century Mozart scholar Arthur Schurig crystallized this paradox: “Mozart has been the subject of more portraits that have no connection with his actual appearance than any other famous man, and there is no more famous person of whom a more worshipful posterity has had a more incorrect physical appearance than is the case with Mozart.” 25 One reason given for the paucity of vetted depictions of Mozart is that unlike other composers he was not painted by the more accomplished artists of his time.14
The golden age of portraiture began in the 1400s with the meticulously rendered masterpieces of Jan van Eyck, and peaked in the 1600s, by which time artists were depicting their subjects with anatomic accuracy. By the end of the eighteenth century, the function of portraiture had changed. Portraits were meant not only to be objective representations of the subject’s appearance; they also needed to depict aspects of the sitter’s “soul.” 14 The Mozart scholar Cliff Eisen noted: “Only a very few images of Mozart are universally agreed to be authentic. Yet the acceptance of these portraits, as well as more recently discovered portraits purporting to be Mozart, is less the result of provenance or connoisseurship than the fact that they are shrines at which Mozart scholars and Mozart lovers uncritically worship. They are representations of how we would like Mozart to look – in short they satisfy our visual biographical fancy.” C
That most of the attested portraits of Mozart are flawed also relates to the inherently weak artistic quality of the paintings. Mozart was rendered prosaically, because his actual appearance was prosaic: his head was disproportionally large, his hands small, his nose large, his face pockmarked (from childhood smallpox), and his complexion pale.14 Footnote 3, 4 One of the more truthful renderings of Mozart is the so-called “Bologna portrait” of the composer at age fourteen, which is a 1777 copy by an unknown artist of the lost 1770 original oil. In this painting, Mozart is wearing the chivalric Order of the Golden Spur (Ordine dello Speron d’Oro), conferred on him by Pope Clement XIV on 4 July 1770. Mozart’s father said that his son was ill the day the original was painted, and that “it has little value as a piece of art, but as to the issue of resemblance, I can assure you that it looks very much like him.” 3 Mozart looks more like someone in his thirties than his mid-teens in this portrait. His head is too small for its torso, whereas in the Lorenzoni portrait it is too large, suggesting that, as was common at the time, a stock painting of his torso was painted at a different time from that of his visage.
There are limitations to what any of the Mozart portraits can depict, especially as artists also attempted to capture his inner thoughts. Mozart portraits do not fully capture the features of his face nor the totality of his personality; they were not meant to do so, as long as they manifested an aspect of his talent and genius. In this regard, the accoutrements in several of the portraits lend Mozart an air of preternatural gravitas, and thus capture aspects of his “true spirit.” 14
The most poignant and “real” portrait of Mozart is also the most idealized and atmospheric: the painting of the composer depicted by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange, which Constanze Mozart said was the “best likeness” of her husband.17,C (Figure 1) In this portrait Mozart is looking not at the viewer, but rather at a keyboard and musical score. The musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon described this portrait as “the most intimate, most profound of all the mature Mozart portraits – the only one, really, to catch the ambivalent nature of Mozart’s mercurial mind and to show the profoundly pessimistic side of his many-sided genius.“ C The portrait adheres to the artistic trope of the musical genius lost in his own world, oblivious to his surroundings.14
Descriptions of Mozart’s eyes varied. According to his son Franx Xaver, Mozart had “very strong and excellent sight” and did not wear glasses.19,26 Mozart’s father, Leopold, in a 1778 letter to his wife, said that Mozart was “short-sighted.” 3 Mozart was not reported to have worn glasses, and died in his thirty-fifth year, before presbyopia would have occurred.
Mozart’s spouse, sister, and sister-in-law all commented that Mozart had “blue eyes” . 3,10,19,33 Mozart’s most famous pupil, the composer and pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel, confirmed this observation, writing that Mozart had “large, blue eyes, which shone brightly.” 19, 33 Several of the vetted portraits depict Mozart with blue or bluish-gray irides (Figures 2b, 3b, 4b, 8b, 9b), although pigments and varnishes in paintings change and fade over time, rendering this observation in the portraiture less secure.
One of Mozart’s earliest biographers, Franz Xaver Niemetschek, stated that Mozart’s eyes were “large and burning.” 21 Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, the Danish diplomat and music historian who married the widow Constanze Mozart, wrote in his 1828 Mozart biography that the composer’s “eyes were quite large.” 29 Caution needs to be taken in reading too much into Nissen’s descriptions as he never met Mozart, and relied on Constanze’s reminiscences; he went on to state that Mozart’s eyes were “dull more than burning.” 29 The German poet and novelist Johann Ludwig Tieck stated that the composer’s “eyes were dim.” Michael Kelly, the Irish tenor who sang in the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), remembered Mozart’s “animated countenance, which often lighted up with the glowing rays of genius.” 10
Zegers commented that in the Lorenzoni portrait (Figure 2a, 2b) the eyes are large and he may have been myopic.31 In the Bologna portrait, both eyes display evidence of inferior scleral show, which Zegers noted to be more prominent in the left eye than the right.31 (Figure 4b) The Grassi enamel and the anonymous enamel given to Anna Maria Thekla Mozart also demonstrate inferior scleral show, but the small size of these enamels limits their iconographic utility. (Figures 6b and 7b)
Zegers suggested that the Lange portrait shows exophthalmos and proposed myopia or a shallow orbit as possible etiologies.31 (Figure 1) Prominence of Mozart’s left globe is observed in the Lange portrait; prominence of the right globe is less noticeable as it is partially obscured by the nose. What is described as globe prominence or exophthalmos in the portrait can also be interpreted as an artistic conceit, capturing pictorially a widening of Mozart’s palpebral fissures to evoke the intensity with which the composer was working. In the Stock silverpoint, a detailed black and white profile of Mozart depicted from his left side, the composer appears to be staring, his left eye widely open. (Figure 10). The right eye in the Posch medallion is looking straight ahead, with no proptosis noted.
Blodi suggested that Mozart had a left esotropia, this diagnosis was made was from one portrait, which has since been shown to be spurious.4,19 Examining scleral symmetry and corneal light reflexes in the vetted portraiture, none displays a strabismus. Zegers suggested that Mozart may have had a left lower lid ectropion.19,31 The vetted portraits do not display an ectropion and this finding is not mentioned in the family correspondence.3,19 Several portraits suggest that Mozart may have had a right upper lid ptosis. This is observed in the miniature enamel portrait formerly in the possession of Anna Maria Thekla Mozart, in the image of Mozart in the della Croce family portrait, and in the portrait by Kraft. (Figs.7b, 8b, 9b)
Braun noted evidence of sectoral heterochromia in a biometrical analysis of five Mozart portraits .6, Footnote 4 Two of the portraits examined in that study, the Fruhstorfer and the Edlinger, are contested. 1, 9,33,A,G, Table 1 Several of the frontal portraits show iris heterochromia (Figures 2b, 3b, 4b, 6b, 7b) as does the posthumous 1819 portrait by Barbara Kraft, suggesting that this finding was observed in at least one of the portraits Kraft borrowed from Mozart’s sister for her portrait of the composer. (Figure 9b) Braun noted that iris coloration in portrait paintings of the eighteenth century is difficult to verify because pigments and varnishes chemically and physically change with age, resulting in color alteration. Portraits are also dependent on illumination of the person depicted; the artist’s examination of eye color; and illumination of the finished painting.6 These issues explain the variation in coloration of the irides seen in the Mozart portraiture, making a firm diagnosis difficult. In addition, optical issues could explain the iridial changes. The areas interpreted as sectoral heterochromia could instead be the result of the optical effect of ambient light refracting off the corneal dome and casting peripheral crescentic shadows on the irides. If so, shadows would be cast on differing areas of each peripheral iris, depending on the angle and direction of the light source and the position of the subject with respect to the artist. If the light source incident on the irides was from the side, there should be temporal iridial shadowing in the eye closer to the light source and nasal iridial shadowing in the eye farther from the source.
The attested Mozart portraiture suggests that he had large eyes with bluish irides. The diagnoses of exophthalmos, sectoral heterochromia, and ptosis are limited by variability in artistic quality and accuracy of the paintings; portraits in Mozart’s time were not meant to be realistic as long as they displayed aspects of his genius. Of the vetted portraits, the one which captures best his visage and his “true spirit,” the Lange portrait, is also the most idealized. None of the proffered ocular diagnoses had any demonstrable impact on his compositions, which have come down to us as among the greatest glories of Western civilization.
Footnote 1: Amadeus: Mozart is often called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Amadeus is a Latinization of one of Mozart’s middle names, Theophilus (Greek = “beloved of god,” or “god-loving“). Mozart himself virtually never used the appellative Amadeus, either in his copious correspondence or in the autograph manuscripts of his compositions. Mozart signed his name as W.A. Mozart, Wolfgango Amadeo Mozart, or Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. Music critics in the late 1780s began referring to him as Amadeus, and posterity has kept that incorrect term as a catch-all phrase to identify the composer, his music, and his legacy.
Footnote 2: Mozart’s putative illnesses: Mozart’s life and health have been the subject of over two centuries of medical analysis and an extensive pathographic literature.8,16,17,19,25,32 The contemporaneous clinical records of his health are descriptive. 8,16,17,19,25,32 As no autopsy was performed, the etiology of his chronic illnesses is speculative, and the proximate cause of his death remains unknown. Rheumatic fever, erythema nodosum, post-streptococcal renal disease, traumatic epidural hematoma, an acute infectious illness, acute nephritic syndrome, anasarca, venesection with subsequent hypovolemic shock, cerebrovascular accident, and even the possibility of acute trichinosis are among the putative diagnosis that have been put forth. 8,16,17,19,245,32 The romanticized tale of Mozart, the neglected artist, being sick during the last years of his life is a myth; his death most likely came quickly as the result of an acute infectious illness.
Footnote 3: Mozart Ear: Mozart can be found in the annals of otology because of a rare auricular malformation he may have possessed in his left ear and which his younger son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, may also have had, eponymously termed Mozart Ear (Mozart Ohr). 24,27,30 Mozart Ear is exceedingly rare and manifests as a bulging of the anterosuperior portion of the auricle due to fusion of the crura of the antihelix, a convex cavum conchae, and a stricture of the external auricular meatus.27,30 Congenital otologic conditions are associated with congenital renal disease.18 Constanze commented that Mozart was concerned about the appearance of his left ear, which may explain why portraits of him painted after 1780 were done either depicting the right side of his face or with a wig large enough to cover his left ear 3,19
Footnote 4: Nomenclature: The terms heterochromia iridis and heterochromia iridum have been used inconsistently in the ophthalmic literature, variably describing the condition in which an individual iris is comprised of more than one color, or where each eye’s iris is a different color.7 When referring to one iris which is of more than one color, the correct term is heterochromia iridis, or, sectoral heterochromia. When referring to two irides, each of a different color, the correct term is heterochromia iridum or complete heterochromia.
Valuable assistance was given by Minas Coroneo M.D., Sydney, Australia; Sabine Greger-Amanshauser, Ph.D., Salzburg, Austria; Michael Marmor, M.D. Stanford, CA; Ela Rusinek-Smigiel, M.A., Opole, Poland; Charles Scribner, Ph.D., New York, NY.
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- Blodi, FC. Was Mozart cross-eyed? Arch Ophthalmol. 1981;99(5):823-82
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- Braun M. The earliest portrait of W.A. Mozart: A biometrical statistical analysis of the newly discovered Fruhstorfer Mozart from c. 1762. Neuroscience of Music. 2013;(8):1-20
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- Telich-Tarriba JE, Victor-Baldin A, Apellaniz-Campo A. Mozart Ear deformity: A rare diagnosis in the ear reconstruction clinic. J Craniofac Surg. 2017;28(5):e482-e484
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- von Nissen, GA. Biographie W.A. Mozarts. Breitkopf und Haertel, Leipzig, Germany, 1828, Erste Auflage. Georg Olms Verlag. Hildesheim. 1991, pp 622-623
- Yamashita K, Yotsuyanagi T, et al. Mozart Ear: Diagnosis, Treatment, Literature Review. Ann Plast Surg;2011;67(5):547 -550
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- Zegers R, Weigl A, Steptoe A. The death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: an epidemiological perspective. Ann Int Med. 2009;18:151(4):274-278, W96-97
- Zenger M, Deutsch OE. Mozart und seine Welt in zeitgenössischen Bildern. Kassel, Bärenreiter, 1961; Mozart and his World in Contemporary Pictures. Kassel, Barenreiter, 1987
Other Cited Material
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Vincent P. MD, FACS, is an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at Yale University School of Medicine, and adjunct clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College, where he also serves on the Music and Medicine Initiative Advisory Board. He is a senior honor recipient of the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) and physician program co-chair of the Connecticut Society of Eye Physicians. A clarinetist, Dr. de Luise is president of the Connecticut Summer Opera Foundation, organized the Connecticut Mozart Festival in the composer’s bicentenary death year, co-founded the annual classical music recital at the annual meeting of the AAO, and writes frequently about music and the arts.