We continue our look at the work of Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1789 - 1862) with an exploration of Mignon, painted in 1828.
Mignon is a character in the novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), one of the most brilliant men of his (or any other) age. The hero of the novel dreams of spending his life in the theater. When an actress breaks his heart, he sets off with a touring company. While on the road he meets Mignon, an androgynous child, who he rescues from an abusive circus troupe that kidnapped her as a small child. Mignon travels with Wilhelm, acting as a grateful servant, but essentially becoming like a daughter to him. She also has the weird ability to mirror Wilhelm’s own emotions, which she expresses in her songs and poems.
Mignon is one of the novel’s supporting characters, but it is she, perhaps, who has fascinated readers and other artists the most, especially composers. Hundreds of pieces of music (and an opera) have been written in her name; her role as muse, both within and without the novel, is secure.
Thomas Carlyle translated the book into English in 1824, and praised the creation of Mignon in his introduction. This mysterious child, at first neglected by the reader, gradually forced on his attention, at length overpowers him with an emotion more deep and thrilling than any poet since the days of Shakespeare has succeeded in producing. The daughter of enthusiasm, rapture, passion and despair, she is of the earth, but not earthly. When she glides before us through the light mazes of her fairy dance, or twangs her cithern to the notes of her homesick verses, or whirls her tambourine and hurries round us like an antique Mænad, we could almost fancy her a spirit; so pure is she, so full of fervour, so disengaged from the clay of this world. And when all the fearful particulars of her story are at length laid together, and we behold in connected order the image of her hapless existence, there is, in those dim recollections, those feelings so simple, so impassioned and unspeakable, consuming the closely-shrouded, woe-struck, yet ethereal spirit of the poor creature, something which searches into the inmost recesses of the soul. It is not tears which her fate calls forth; but a feeling far too deep for tears. The very fire of heaven seems miserably quenched among the obstructions of this earth. Her little heart, so noble and so helpless, perishes before the smallest of its many beauties is unfolded; and all its loves and thoughts and longings do but add another pang to death, and sink to silence utter and eternal.
Various complications ensue throughout the novel (as is often the case in both literature and life): there’s a long digression with a book-within-the-book, and finally we are back to the story of Wilhelm. He ends up at a mysterious castle where he meets members of the secret Society of the Tower, who have been manipulating events all along. It turns out that Wilhelm’s life is a scroll in their library – a fine, surrealist ending for a wondrously strange novel. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is not just a coming-of-age tale, but a novel of ideas, asking us to question the nexus between art and reality, experience and illusion, memory and fact.
Mignon expresses, for Goethe, a yearning for a lost world, for a time long vanished. Schadow’s portrait created some controversy with critics claiming that it was inappropriate for Schadow to translate the poetic into the visual. Schadow, however, insisted on the crucial transforming role of art in society and art’s religious mission, providing a nearly Christian reading of Goethe’s character. In his painting Schadow transforms Goethe’s heroine into an allegory of Romantic art, nudging Goethe’s Enlightenment sensibility into something closer to his own Nazarene convictions.
One of the most striking things about Schadow’s picture of Mignon is its Renaissance feel. One could almost imagine the shade of a sympathetic Raphael at his side – the delicate molding of the head, arms, and gentle twist of the body all seem, to my eye, evocative of Raphael. Both the cithern (much like a modern mandolin) and the angel’s wings clearly mark Mignon as an Angel of Music, both muse and performer. Her placid cast of beauty is also deeply “spiritual;” Schadow’s Mignon does not live on the same plain as we mere mortals. That she also seems to inhabit a cave or grotto further removes her from the reality of our brick and mortar world.
Also of interest is the gauzy material enveloping Mignon’s shoulders. The blue of this gauze is too evocative of the blue often associated with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. As Mary gave birth to mankind’s transcendence, so too does Mignon give birth to a type of transcendence by inspiring artists, poets and actors.
It is no surprise that Schadow, one of the most Catholic of Enlightenment-era painters, would transform an artistic muse into a Christian angel.