Lot 12
  • 12

An Important Austrian Lead Bust of the so-called 'Ill Humored Man', by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, after 1770

bidding is closed


evidence of original label on his chest, inscribed with the number ‘18’ below his right shoulder, the inventory number IN59895 drawn with ink up the back of the base column, the number 40? 214/? later scratched below the head in the back.


Johann Adam Messerschmidt, brother of the sculptor
Mr. Stranz, before 1793
Dr. Richard Beer-Hofmann, Vienna, before 1905/6
Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Vienna, inv. no. 59895, 1939
Restituted to the heirs of Dr. Richard Beer-Hofmann in 2003


Merkwuerdige Lebensgeschichte des Franz Xaver Messerschmidt K.K. Oeffentliche Lehrer des Bildhauerkunst, Vienna, 1793
Michael Krapf (ed.), Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783, (exh.cat.) The Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna 2002, cat. no. 28


F. A. Mesmer, Abhandlung über die Entdeckung des thierischen Magnetismus, Karlsruhe, 1781.
E. Kris, Die Charakterköpfe des F. K. Messerschmidt, Jarbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wein, Vienna 1932, p. 205.
M. Pötzl-Malikova, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Vienna and Munich, 1982, cat. 84.
Sophie Lillie, Was einmal war: Handbuch der enteigneten Kunstsammlungen, Vienna, 2003, pp. 151-159.

The Grove Art Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Catalogue Note

Messerschmidt’s ‘Character Heads’

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was one of the most progressive and remarkable artists of his time. He sealed his position in art history at a moment of seismic artistic and cultural transition by abandoning his role as a conformist court sculptor and seeking out new artistic possibilities.

Messerschmidt was widely regarded as an unusual personality and lived his final years in solitude.  His celebrated series of uncommissioned ‘character heads’ only reinforced his reputation as an eccentric since they displayed an anthology of bizarre grimaces and sneers.  After his death, 69 heads were found in his studio, 49 of which were exhibited in Vienna in 1793 in an exhibition entitled: ‘Merkwuerdige Lebensgeschichte des Franz Xaver Messerschmidt K.K. Oeffentliche Lehrer des Bildhauerkunst,’ accompanied by an itemized exhibition brochure entitled Charakterköpfe. 43 of the original heads are known today.

The present and following lot, both original heads, are appearing on the market for the first time. Thanks to the work of Pötzl-Malikova (op.cit) and Krapf (op.cit) in recent years, we have a great deal more information regarding the sculptor and his magnificent series of busts.  Each of the present lots bears its original number (inscribed into the metal below the lower right shoulder) and traces of an exhibition label. These labels most probably refer to the exhibition noted above, catalogued by the nephew of Messerschmidt, and to the descriptive titles he gave the heads after Messerschmidt’s death. As this inaugural exhibition included the first 49 of the 69 heads created, we can assume that the present two (nos. 18 and 28) were included in that exhibition.

The collection of ‘character heads’ was inherited by the artist’s brother, Johann Adam, who then sold it to a dealer and collector named Stranz.  A further exhibition followed in 1812 and several others into the 19th century. Plaster copies were made in the 19th century as Messerschmidt’s work attracted considerable interest at that time. Furthermore, both lots 12 and 13 appear in an engraving by M. R. Thoma, 1839, illustrated by Krapf (p.217, op.cit) (see Figure 3).

As a celebrated metalworker, Messerschmidt was most interested in the composition of various alloys. The majority of his busts are made of lead or pewter-like material containing a great deal of lead which was then given a fine silver finish (see lots 12 and 13 respectively).

Art historian Ernst Kris in the 1930s proposed that this series of heads was connected to Messerschmidt’s delusions. Indeed, the sculptor's biographer Friedrich Nicolai confirmed that “…spirits tormented [Messerschmidt]”. Apparently he was able to confront these spirits with facial grimaces and gained a sense of mastery over them by technically perfecting his ‘heads’ and by demonstrating in his work a sense of order and proportion. The ‘character heads' also adhered to the tenets of the Enlightenment: they were fresh and individualized images that eschewed institutionalized traditions. By the 18th century the unrivalled popularity of caricatures may have also been seen as a reaction against the conventions of 18th century portraiture.

The ‘Ill Humored Man’ and ‘The Incapable Bassoonist’

Both the present and following lots show a rare talent for modeling and chiseling.  These works are so exquisitely sculpted it is clear that they were the artist's primary focus by the 1770's.  The present lot, 12, represents one of three heads upon which a band was placed over the mouth of the sitter. It is likely that this band is actually one of the magnets that the psychologist and great friend of the sculptor, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, used as one of his “magnetic cures”.  The following lot, 13, illustrates an example of Messerschmidt’s fixation with mimicry. In his biography of the artist, Nicolai, who visited Messerschmidt in 1781, recalls the sculptor’s demand that man should conceal “the red of the lips” (Krapf, p. 166, op.cit.) as animals do.

The Sculptor

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (Wiesensteig, nr. Ulm 1736- Pressburg [now Bratislava] 1783) was descended from a family of sculptors, including Johann Baptist Straub, court sculptor in Munich, who also trained him. Following his formative years in Germany, Messerschmidt moved to Vienna and attended the Akademie which, in 1755, was under the directorship of Martin Van Meytens, a painter who had been active at the court of Maria Theresa.

He gained his first appointment at the Imperial Arsenal where he was charged with decorating canons. Between 1760 and 1763 he produced his first known independent works, the gilt bronze busts of the Empress Maria Theresa and her husband Franz I  von Lothringen as well as the bronze reliefs of their son, Joseph II, and their daughter Maria Isabella von Parma (all preserved in the Österreichische Galerie, Belvedere, Vienna).

Messerschmidt also carried out commissions for official portraits, but few of these early works survive. In addition, he produced a number of religious and allegorical sculptures, but again, as Maria Pöltz-Malikova (Grove, op.cit) notes, only those created between 1766 and 1770 can be tocated.  It was during these years that Messerschmidt took up residence with Dr. Mesmer who, through his patients, presented the sculptor with a wide range of human afflictions.  In Mesmer's home the sculptor could focus on the human face and capture fleeting impressions.  Mesmer was a patron and friend of Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In 1768 the 12 year old W. A. Mozart composed Bastien und Bastienne, a one-act Singspiel, for the doctor. Mozart later lampooned Mesmer in Così fan tutte. At the time Messerschmidt was living with Mesmer, the latter's immediate circle also included Christoph Willibald Gluck and Franz Joseph Haydn.

By this time Messerschmidt was highly regarded for his exceptional craftsmanship and he traveled to Rome, under the patronage of the Emperor, where he studied in the monuments of antiquity.  Upon his return to Vienna he executed several portrait busts including one of the art critic Franz von Scheyb and another of Dr. Mesmer.  The bust of von Scheyb was the first known example of neoclassical portrait sculpture in Vienna. His trip to Rome greatly affected the sculptor.  His works in this period are devoid of decorative elements and highlight his interest in bold facial features, simply modeled classical forms and frontal viewpoints.

Messerschmidt became a member of the Akademie in 1769, and while prosperous for some time, commissions began to wane and conflicts with colleagues increased. Some have noted his “mental instability”. He was finally dismissed from the Akademie with a tiny pension and eventually moved to Pressburg.

From this time onward, Messerschmidt devoted all of his artistic energies to the production of his beloved Charakterköpfe (‘character heads’).  Upon his death, his possessions went to his brother who sold them all to pay off the sculptor’s debts.

 Dispersal of the ‘Heads’

Some time after the 1793 exhibition, several busts ended up among the curiosities in the Prater, Vienna. Subsequently, the busts were dispersed and plaster casts were made of many of them. A large number of the heads were handed over in 1923 to the newly founded Österreichische Galerie in the Lower Belvedere. According to Pötzl-Malikova (Grove, op.cit), of the 43 surviving heads today, the Österreichische Galerie has 16, the remainder are in European institutions, only one is in an American institution (the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and a smaller group are in European and American private collections.  Examples of this rare and remarkable series of heads have never come up for auction in the United States.  The only others to have appeared at auction were two ‘character heads’ sold at Sotheby’s London April 2, 1985.

Dr. Richard Beer-Hofmann

Richard Beer-Hofmann (1866-1945) was a great man of letters.   He made a name as a playwright with his celebrated works Death of Georges and Jacob’s Dream.  In 1905 his book, The Count of Charolais, was made into a play which was directed by the famous Max Reinhardt in Berlin.  In 1898, Beer-Hofmann married Paula Lissy and had three children.  

Beer-Hofmann was well acquainted with Hofmansthal and Schnitzler, and all belonged to the Viennese literary circle, Jung-Wien. In 1905/6 his villa was built by the renowned Wiener Werkstätte architect and designer Josef Hoffmann.  In its heyday, Villa Beer-Hofmann was known for its intimate gatherings of intellectuals, artists and literati of the turn of the century.  Josef Hoffmann (see Figure 2) designed the furniture, the entire interior and the gardens and in 1908, the villa was shown to the public.

Sophie Lillie, in her seminal book about Vienese art collections expropriated during the war, includes an inventory list of the objects in the Villa Beer-Hofmann (p.158, op.cit), two of which were  heads of men catalogued as “after Messerschmidt”.  The list was created by an appraiser who was asked to document Beer-Hofmann’s assets for declaration to the Nazi authorities. In 1939/40, the Villa was forcibly sold to the former financier and leader of the Wiener Werkstätte, Kuno Grohmann.  In 1939, the busts were transferred to the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, and the Beer-Hofmann’s fled Vienna for Zurich. Two months later, Paula Beer-Hofmann passed away and Richard left Zurich for New York.  By 1941, objects not claimed by the family were taken by the Gestapo and sold by the Vugesta.  In 1945 Dr. Richard Beer-Hofmann was awarded the prize of the U.S. National Institute of Arts and Letters.

The Beer-Hofmann heirs were able to recover ownership of the Villa in the 1950s but, for financial reasons, had to sell it in 1966 to Simone Ginger.  It was through their daughter, Miriam, that the heads were inherited by the current owners.   In 2003, the heirs were alerted to the existence of both Messerschmidt heads, the present and following lots, and have brought them to the market to help secure the financial future of Richard Beer-Hofmann’s descendants.