The great German Romantic writer, E T A Hoffmann was a talented artist. There are many self-portraits and illustrations of his own tales that attest to this. This personal passion comes through loud and clear in his fiction. Let’s look at how it does so in three stories from the anthology, Tales of Hoffmann.
Der Artushof (1815) (Translated by R J Hollindale)
Synopsis from the Oxford Companion to German Literature: “The story begins in the hall known as the Artushof (King Arthur’s court) in Danzig. Its theme is the discovery by a young businessman that his real calling is art. He breaks off his engagement to a potentially good housewife (Christina), and pursues in vain an ideal of womanly beauty (Felizitas), rejecting for her the passionate and loving Dorina. In the end he realizes that Felizitas is a symbol of art, not a woman to be possessed, and leaves for Italy to marry Dorina.”
This story is supposedly autobiographical, the realisation of the ambitions of the young business man, Traugott (Trust God) in wanting to become an artist said to reflect Hoffmann’s own feelings and inclinations.
“What a miserable life I lead,” he said to himself. “It is a lovely morning in golden springtime … and what am I doing? Dragging myself to Herr Roos’s reeky office …. “
I’m not aware that Hoffmann ever neglected the day job to pursue his artistic dream, but he does allow his alter-ego, Traugott to do so. There’s also that business of the complicated love-life. (Hoffmann’s too was somewhat complex.) What I found interesting is that Traugott, in pursuit of his ideal woman, Felizitas, chases her to Italy, home of Raphael, the artist Hoffmann thought was visionary. Instead he finds Dorina, whom he describes thus:
“She was, indeed, almost Felizitas herself, only her features were stronger and more clearly defined, and her hair was darker. It was the same picture, painted first by Raphael, then by Rubens.”
If Felizitas is the ideal woman painted by Raphael, out of reach, what does Rubens’s brush do to Dorina? Bring her down to earth and make her attainable?
The Choosing of The Bride (1819) Translated by R J Hollindale
How’s this for a synopsis? Hoffmann’s own: “a story in which several altogether improbable adventures take place.” You can say that again, and it comes with a twist lifted from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The beautiful Albertine, has multiple suitors vying for her hand: Baron Benjie, Chancellery Private Secretary Tusmann and the young artist, Edmund Lehsen. No prizes for guessing who has won her heart. Yet her hand to be given to the one who chooses the casket containing her portrait. Again no prizes for guessing who gets the girl. Yet the other two suitors also win their heart’s desire. In fact, we can argue whose is the greatest prize. Whereas e-readers are run-of-the-mill these days, Private Secretary Tussmann is a very happy chappy when he finds the nineteenth century equivalent in the silver casket; a little book, bound in parchment, capable of transforming into any reading material whatsoever!
The story contains much about art theory with Edmund painting living landscapes that embrace the imagination. Says one observer of his work:
“What an astonishing drawing, my dear young man: that won’t end up as trees but as something quite different … out of all those clusters of leaves it seems to me there are all kinds of figures peering: now genii, now strange animals, now young girls, now flowers.”
It’s almost as if Edmund is recreating Jacques Callot’s La Fiore de Gondreville (1624), a painting Hoffmann is known to have admired. Look at that tree.
As Edmund says on behalf of all Romantic painters:
“It is from such studies that I bestow poetry and imagination on the landscape. The landscape painter has to be just as much a poet as a portrait painter does, or he will never be anything but a bungler.”
So passionate about his art is Edmund, that no sooner does he know Albertine is his, he travels to Italy to perfect it! Are we spotting a theme here? Italy, the siren. Will the relationship endure? Who can say?
But let’s follow Edmund to Italy now for the final story of today’s post. Not a Künstlernovelle (artist tale) per se, it was inspired by a real work of art.
Doge and Dogeressa (1818) Translated by Stella and Vernon Humphries
Hoffmann saw Kolbe’s oil painting at an exhibition in 1816, and his painterly eye detected an air of tension between the elderly Doge and his young wife. After discovering the story of Marino Falieri and his young wife Annunziata in a history of Venice, he created this tale. Synopsis fro the Oxford Companion to German Literature: “The newly elected 80-year-old Doge Falieri is plagued by jealousy after his marriage to the beautiful 19-year-old Annunziata; he alienates his supporters, conspires against the Signoria, and is executed. Annunziata, who loves a young man named Antonio, flees with him …
Antonio’s trials and tribulations are many, and he survives only with the aid of his former nursemaid, Margaretha, when they meet again through good luck and coincidence. Similarly it transpires that he and Annunziata have met before and have always known that they were meant for each other. Yet, surrounded by so much cruelty and darkness, can the two lovers beat the odds and escape to their happy ever after?
This is such a painful story, it’s ironic that Italy is the wonderland that the artists of Der Artushof and The Choosing of the Bride run towards.