Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein
(Haina 1751 - 1829 Eutin)

Portrait Bust of Ulysses, 1794

Oil on panel, 38.5 x 29.8 cm
Signed and dated lower right Tischbein f. 1794

Possibly Graf Leopold Nádasdy (1802-73);[1]
Dorotheum, Vienna 1969;
Private collection, Vienna.

Marianne Haraszti-Takács, 'La tête d‘Ulysse par Tischbein et l’idée allemande de l’antiquité au tournant des XVIII-XIXe siècle', in Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts, 52, 1979, pp. 63-75.

We are especially grateful to Hermann Mildenberger for his research findings. They are reproduced here in abridged form.




Ulysses is widely considered to be the prototype of modern man. Sharp-witted, resolute and courageous, he opposes the will of the gods by employing guile and deception. Tischbein portrays Ulysses in the form of a robed portrait bust, depicting him almost as if he were a living monument.[2] In doing so, Tischbein displays understanding of both Ulysses’ character and his historical relevance, two dimensions that were of particular importance to him as an archaeologist and a connoisseur of ancient literature. His encounter with the physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater and the philologist Johann Jakob Bodmer in Zurich introduced him to the potential of physiognomics in the analysis of facial characteristics. The writings of Homer, notably the Odyssey, preoccupied Tischbein throughout his life: “So fond am I of that book that I [long] nurtured the wish that those around me at my deathbed should place the Iliad on my brow and the Odyssey on my breast; so often did my eyes brim with tears that soddened my breast as they fell.”[3] The present painting was executed during Tischbein’s extended sojourn in Naples (1788-99). It is a product of his intensive engagement with the art of antiquity and the writings of Homer. Against this background he also produced an important illustrated work based on the Odyssey, titled Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet [Homer, drawn after the Antique]. Publication began in Göttingen in 1801 on his return to Germany.[4]

Fig. 1: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein / Christian Gottlob Heyne, Homer nach Antiken gezeichnet, 1801, Zweites Heft, title page: Head of Ulysses, sheet: 49.8 x 34.5 cm, platemark: 35.2 x 21.9 cm, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, PPN: 873820150.

Describing the genesis of the present painting the Weimar-based art historian and Tischbein scholar Hermann Mildenberger writes: Tischbein’s Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet, a set of etchings and engravings, was the central artistic preoccupation of the literary-minded painter during his last 10 years in Italy. After fleeing the French occupation of Naples in 1799 and returning to Germany, he unwaveringly resumed work on the set of illustrations. He had succeeded in saving a large body of preparatory work which accompanied him on his flight from Italy.[5] He regarded Homer’s two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as the quintessence of worldly wisdom, often interpreted in a very personal and subjective way, whereby especially in the late eighteenth century Homer was also considered beneficial as a speculum principum – a mirror for princes [Fürstenspiegel] and manual for use in the education of the children of ruling families. In his publication announcement for the set of illustrations to Homer, Tischbein stated categorically in December 1800: “… no other poet has done so much for the education of mankind as Homer, and will continue to do so.”[6]

As a classicist, Tischbein sought to achieve the greatest possible likeness to antique models. In Italy he worked from original visual sources, copying archaeological models such as statues, busts, reliefs, cut gemstones and motifs taken from ancient vases.[7]

Fig. 2: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein / Christian Gottlob Heyne, Homer nach Antiken gezeichnet, 1801, Erstes Heft, title page: Sieben Heldenköpfe [Busts of the Seven Major Heroes of the Iliad]

The Homeric motifs served him as a point of departure for the creation of a large number of history paintings. At the same time, he set out to unite his copies (which he interpreted as Homeric) in one great graphic work, an ‘authentic’ pictorial encyclopedia with explanatory texts – Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet. The engraved title page of the Zweites Heft [second part] depicts the same bust of Ulysses that is depicted in the present painting, albeit with slight modifications. The scale is also very similar – the size of the sheet is large folio (Fig. 1). Andreas Andresen characterized the engraving as follows: “ODYSSEUS (in Greek script). Bust of Ulysses, after a marble bust, frontal view, looking towards the left, on his head a sailor’s cap decorated with lotus and dancing genii. Set in a square wall border. Drawn by Tischbein and engraved by R. Morghen. Lacking artist’s name.”[8]

Fig. 3: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Ulysses, 1794, oil on panel, 38.5 x 29.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, inv. 76.1

In terms of facial characteristics, the painted portrait bust of Ulysses resembles the engraved version very closely, however its border is entirely different. The border in the engraving is rectangular and its surface has the smoothness and gleam of a cut gemstone. The very precise inscription ODYSSEUS (in Greek script) recalls letterpress. A profile head of Ulysses appears further in the celebrated engraving Sieben Heldenköpfe [Busts of the Seven Major Heroes of the Iliad] (Fig. 2) published in the Erstes Heft [first part] in 1801.[9] In the painting, the border is slightly arched at the top and resembles rusticated stonework with a time-worn, somewhat archaic character. It conveys a greater impression of plasticity and depth than the border in the engraving. Although the black-and-white engraved portrait bust has a certain vitality it seems historically remote in comparison with the more lifelike painted version, which is highly naturalistic in its immediacy, virtually anecdotal. Dated 1794, the painting is one of Tischbein’s earliest works on the Homeric theme. He repeatedly adopted motifs published in Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet and further developed them in his paintings. The strength of his vigorous inventive powers can also be observed in the present painting.

A further, somewhat weaker rendition of the present painting in Tischbein’s own hand is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest (Fig. 3).

  1. We are grateful to Dr. Miklós Gálos of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, which hold a version of our painting (fig. 3), for providing information relating to the provenance of our painting. He sees it as entirely plausible that the listing in the handwritten inventory of the Nádasdy Collection, Beschreibung der Gemälde Sammlung des Grafen Leopold Nádasdy zu Pest, might refer to the present painting. The inventory was compiled before 1873. The similarities between the two versions and the fact that their formats are identical qualify one or the other to be linked to the inventory. The circumstances of the dispersal of the Nádasdy Collection are unknown, however this almost certainly took place after Nádasdy’s death in 1873. Vienna would have provided an ideal platform and it was there that the present work surfaced in a private collection during the 1960s.
    The Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest holds a version that was acquired from a private collection in Budapest in 1976. It was previously owned by the Tornyay-Schossberger family and had belonged to the collector Albert Nyáry until 1923. We are also grateful to Miklós Gálos for pointing out an article by Marianne Haraszti-Takács titled ‘La tête d’Ulysse par Tischbein et l’idée allemande de l’Antiquité au tournant des XVIII–XIXe siècles’, in Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts, Budapest 1979, 52.
  2. Christian Gottlob Heyne notes that Tischbein’s source of inspiration was a marble bust owned by Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, which he had probably seen in Rome where part of Hervey’s collection was housed. For further details, see FN 9.
  3. ‘Homers Odyssee und der Rückzug ins Private’, in Wiedergeburt griechischer Götter und Helden. Homer in der Kunst der Goethezeit, exhib. cat., Winckelmann-Museum Stendal 1999-2000, p. 143.
  4. Tischbein’s preoccupation with the works of Homer began during his sojourn in Italy but production of the set of engravings and etchings was delayed when French Revolutionary troops entered Naples in 1799 and Tischbein was forced to flee to Germany. The Göttingen publisher Dieterich took on publication of the set under the title Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet in 1801. It was issued in six parts (Hefte 1-6) from 1801 to 1804 and included explanatory texts by Christian Gottlob Heyne. Each part contained six engraved plates after drawings by Tischbein together with vignettes, initials and ornaments. Prints by Raphael Morghen (1758–1833) and Tischbein’s nephew, the engraver, C. W. J. Unger (1775–1858), court painter to the Prince of Waldeck, were also bound in. After 1804, production was halted when Dieterich ran into difficulties. The firm was eventually taken over by the Stuttgart publishers Cotta in 1819. Publication resumed in 1821 but the project never reached completion. See Peter Prange, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Zeichner, Die Vergötterung Homers, 1818/19, <> (accessed March 31, 2021).
  5. See Andreas Andresen, Die deutschen Maler-Radirer (peintres-graveurs) des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts nach ihren Leben u. Werken, II, Leipzig 1867, pp. 32–38.
  6. Allgemeiner Literarischer Anzeiger, V/1, December 1800, no. 189, columns 1857–8; Hermann Mildenberger, ‘Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829). Historienmalerei und niedere Bildgattungen vereint im Dienst monarchischer Restauration’, in Werner Warnke (ed.), IDEA. Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunsthalle, VIII, 1989, pp. 75–94.
  7. Here, the preparatory stages of what was to be Tischbein’s Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet overlapped with his supervision of the engravings after ancient vases in the possession of Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples. This was published in 1791-95 as Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases mostly of Pure Greek Workmanship….
  8. Andresen (op. cit.), p. 36, no. 35.
  9. Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet, 1801, Erstes Heft, plate p. 34. Heyne, a scholar of archaeology, gave the following interpretation of the portrait head of Ulysses: ‘…We see the head drawn here in the Erstes Heft as one of the Sieben Heldenköpfe [Busts of the Seven Major Heroes of the Iliad] where it is already reported that it is of marble, namely under life-size, and is owned by Lord Bristol [Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol] (author’s note). Drawn there in profile; here it is of larger proportions and presented more to the fore; the character conveyed at that time is [now] the more discernible; the forward-directed gaze, the firm, sharp, inquiring eye, bold, courageous, persistent and steadfast … In his gaze one perceives a man engaged in deep thought who plots his attack, yet a man who is also well able to command this attack and with courage, strength and perseverance see it through. The flame-like curls bestow an impact of their own on hair and beard, they resemble those found on heads of Jupiter, only that they differ on his by being let down and on Ulysses’ they stand up.’ See Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet, Zweites Heft, pp. 8–10.


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