Back to results

Character Head: Childish Weeping Franz Xaver Messerschmidt


Franz Xaver Messerschmidt Wiesensteig, 1736 – Pozsony [Bratislava], 1783

Culture Austrian
Date 1771–1783
Object type sculpture
Medium, technique tin-lead alloy

45 × 22 × 25 cm

Inventory number 51.936
Collection Sculpture
On view Museum of Fine Arts, Second Floor, European Sculpture 1350-1800, Gallery 3

The upward path of Messerschmidt’s career was brought to a halt by a mysterious illness. He was tipped to be professor of sculpture in the Academy of Arts in Vienna, and was a favourite sculptor in the imperial court, when he was suddenly pensioned off on account of his mental illness. Upset, he took leave of Vienna for good and settled in Pozsony. It was here that most of his Character heads were made, a unique series of about fifty busts.
Much head-scratching has gone on over the interpretation of the busts, which after the sculptor’s death were displayed as a raree-show in the Prater in Vienna. Initially they were associated with the artist’s presumed schizophrenia, and in a Freudian vein they were seen as a reflection of the subconscious. Others suggested that the heads were inspired by the peculiar methods of the doctor Franz Anton Mesmer, a close friend of the artist’s, which are held to be the forerunner of psychotherapy. Mesmer believed the root of psychological and even indirectly physical diseases was the disorder of the magnetic field of the nervous system. During the sessions Messerschmidt would have seen such extreme emotions on the patients’ faces. It is true, however, that in Messerschmidt’s time the representation of human emotions was a central issue of art. As a teacher at the academy he certainly knew contemporary studies of expressions, thus in spite of their traditional titles the heads explore various, sometimes extreme grimaces rather than human characters.

Miriam Szőcs

Catalogue entry

Several contemporary sources relate that Messerschmidt modelled the Character Heads on his own portrait. This is what Friedrich Nicolai wrote after visiting the artist. The same was stated in a poem composed by an unknown author two years after the sculptor’s death and in Christoph Ludwig Seipp’s guidebook, published in 1793. Yet there are several different types among the various character heads. Some of them resemble Messerschmidt’s known portrait, although there are close similarities in terms of shape among the various types. Indeed, in many cases, it would be difficult to categorically place them in separate groups. Those that are portrayed as completely shaven and with thick and often hunched necks, such as The Yawner, differ significantly from the others. In contrast, The Childish Weeping shows greater affinity with Messerschmidt’s self-portrait. In Messerschmidt’s Character Heads, we several busts with heads closely resembling The Childish Weeping, such as The Satirical Person (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg), The Noble-Minded (Belvedere, Vienna), or The Sneezing Man, known today only in a plaster replica. Because of their similar forms and the portrayed mimics, these four busts constitute an easily identifiable separate group within the series. Characteristic features of the four busts include short wavy wig-like hair, identical facial features, high foreheads, and the same shape of bust. Even so, the lower part of the face of the character head in Budapest has a uniqueness, with nothing similar being seen on any of the other character heads. The Childish Weeping, like all the other character heads, received its odd name in 1793. Around 1792, Franz Strunz purchased forty-nine character-heads and five other statues by Messerschmidt in Bratislava. In 1793 he exhibited the works in Vienna, and compiled an exhibition brochure, giving each character head a number and a name. He sought to explain the made-up name The Childish Weeping in terms of the expression of a child who bursts into tears when being denied of something. This interpretation probably had little in common with Messerschmidt’s intent. Today, the grimacing face tends to be linked with such emotions as anxiety, panic, or disgust. A parallel can be drawn between The Childish Weeping and several drawings by Charles Le Brun, including Le Désespoir and Le Pleureur. The French painter, who played an important role in the establishment of the French Academy, made a series of etchings that aimed to show how to depict various emotions on a human face. Published in the form of a book in the late seventeenth century, the work was republished in many editions during the following decades, greatly influencing the academic training of artists throughout Europe. Messerschmidt must have been familiar with Le Brun’s manual from his time at the Academy in Vienna, and this influence is perhaps most tangibly felt in this bust. Miriam Szőcs

This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.

Recommended exhibitions