B-A-c-H on the Bass Clef: Support for an Early Bach Portrait

22. November 2015

The Johann Sebastian Bach Foundation recently donated €10,000 to the Bachhaus Eisenach for purchasing the last known authenticated Bach portrait from the 18th century.                         

Bachbild Goebel kleinThe oil painting on limewood features a man with an interested expression on his face. His eyes are brown with eyelids that droop slightly at the outer edges. Laughter lines can be seen near the left eye. The corners of the mouth are pulled in, giving the impression that the figure in the portrait is smiling slightly. We know for certain that the man in this portrait by the painter “Gebel” is Johann Sebastian Bach: owing to the sheet of music he is holding with the notes “B-A-c-H” in the bass clef and to the fact that the painting was recognized early on and used in nearly ten copperplate engravings of Bach, as well as on the title page of the first volume of Leipzig’s Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (“general music newspaper”) from 1798/99.

In 1985 the 18th-century painting was discovered in a private collection.
The first public showing was one of the highlights of the Thuringian State Exhibition (Thüringer Landesausstellung) in the Bach Year 2000. Some believe that the painting is an early, freely executed reproduction of the Leipzig Bach painting by Elias Gottlob Haußmann (1746). However, the art historian Reimar Lacher (Gleimhaus Museum, Halberstadt) recently wrote an expert opinion, attributing the motif to the painter Johann Emanuel Göbel (1720–1759) from Dresden. Based on the direct and relatively unpretentious nature of the portrait, Lacher concludes that “there is no doubt” the painting was created independently during the composer’s lifetime. However, he does not want to rule out the possibility that the work was a copy of an even older portrait. The painting first came to the Bachhaus on loan in 2014.

DSC_5121_Bachbild Goebel im Bachhaus“We are very pleased about the owner’s decision and grateful for the generous support that made it possible to acquire this painting for the collection of the Neue Bachgesellschaft in the Bachhaus Eisenach, with its specialisation in Bach iconography, particularly as this work is a very important portrait for the early Bach reception,” said Bachhaus Director Dr Jörg Hansen. Additional support for the acquisition was provided by the Free State of Thuringia and a private donor. The painting is already on display at the Bachhaus. A new scientific publication on this and other Bach portraits will be published in the near future (in “Bachs Welt”, Bach-Handbuch Vol. 7, Laaber-Verlag, December 2015).

Photos: Bachhaus Eisenach

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