the hitherto lost original painting that was the inspiration for tolkien’s gandalf. given by the artist to the present owner, this important tolkien item has been in private hands for over sixty years.
In his 1977 biography, Humphrey Carpenter records details of Tolkien’s holiday in Switzerland immediately after leaving King Edward's school in 1911:
Before setting off on the return journey to England, Tolkien bought some picture postcards. Among them was a reproduction of a painting by a German artist, J. Madelener [sic]. It is called Der Berggeist, the mountain spirit, and it shows an old man sitting on a rock under a pine tree. He has a white beard and wears a wide-brimmed round hat and a long cloak. He is talking to a white fawn that is nuzzling his upturned hands, and he has a humorous but compassionate expression; there is a glimpse of rocky mountains in the distance. Tolkien preserved this postcard carefully, and long afterwards he wrote on the paper cover in which he kept it: ‘Origin of Gandalf’.
This painting – hitherto known only from a few copies of the postcard – has attained a legendary status in Tolkien studies. An article, ‘The Origin of Gandalf and Josef Madlener’ by Manfred Zimmerman (Mythlore 34, Winter 1983) provides further research into this ‘lost treasure’ and concludes ‘…as for the original, nobody has the slightest idea as to its whereabouts… …perhaps it is… catching dust in someone’s attic, unhonoured and unrecognized for what it is.’
Douglas A. Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit notes Josef Madlener (1881-1967) as a German artist and illustrator born near Memmingen. His work was published in numerous newspapers and magazines in addition to a small number of children’s Christmas books including Das Christkind Kommt (1929) and Das Buch vom Christkind (1938). A monograph by Eduard Raps, Joseph Madlener 1881 bis 1867, was published in 1981.
Zimmerman interviewed the artist’s daughter for his 1983 article and discovered that the painting was thought to date from around the mid to late 1920s. When asked about the discrepancy in date Carpenter noted that his statement was ‘based on some notes that [Tolkien] wrote on the envelope which contains his copy of the card’. Carpenter also noted that he received ‘endless inquiries from Tolkien enthusiasts who want to see a copy, and cannot find any trace of it’ and felt he ought to have reproduced the postcard in the biography. It is therefore currently accepted that Tolkien acquired a copy of the postcard in the mid 1920s around the time when he began telling his children the stories that were eventually to become The Hobbit.
The present owner met the artist twice and remembers Madlener as being tall – approximately six foot, or six foot one. Madlener liked to bake and, for a second visit in 1946 or 1947 had made some bread, similar to Stollen, and there was much conversation, bread and coffee. Having seen Der Berggeist on the previous visit, the present owner told the artist how much he loved it. Madlener promptly told his guest to give it a good home. It has remained in this private collection for the last sixty years.
The owner recalls that Madlener stated the mountains in the background of the painting were the Dolomites. The piece has recently been framed and glazed to a high standard.
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