Mozart balls: a portrait of the bittersweet life of Jihlava-born painter Barbara Krafft

Mozart Balls, photo: Erich73, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

If asked to picture Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in your mind’s eye, odds are you will conjure up one of two images of the Austrian composer – both of which have Czech artistic roots, albeit centuries apart. If not the lead actor from Miloš Forman’s Oscar-winning film Amadeus, the image in your head is likely a posthumous portrait by Jihlava native Barbara Krafft.

Self-portrait of Barbara Krafft,  source: Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain
Maria Barbara Steiner was born in 1764 in Jihlava, a town straddling the historical border between Bohemia and Moravia. Her father was an Austrian Imperial court painter of Moravian origin who, a few years after his daughter’s birth, became a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, on the merits of his portrait of the then Chancellor of State.

Although Barbara, as she was known, worked by her father’s side as a young girl and embraced his techniques, that she would follow fully in his footsteps was quite an exceptional thing in the late 18th century, says author and historical researcher Zdeněk Geist.

“Barbara Krafft was not only an interesting painter but also quite a remarkable woman, who achieved recognition in the arts. From a professional standpoint during that era this was not at all easy for women.”

In her early twenties, Barbara moved to the Austrian capital along with her father, in 1786. That year she exhibited her first portrait at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, of a French Abbé. It was a sensation, and she would go on to become one of just a handful of women painters invited to become members of the Academy in the 18th century.

Wed thee to an apothecary!

Zdeněk Geist,  photo: Milan Kopecký,  Czech Radio
Despite that early and remarkable success, Barbara’s mother was apparently eager to marry her only daughter off to a solid earner. At the age of 25, she wed an Austrian apothecary named Joseph Krafft. Zdeněk Geist again:

“Joseph had just received his diploma and was running a pharmacy in Vienna’s Spittelberg quarter. At the time, Barbara’s mother lived not far from his pharmacy. She was concerned that her daughter’s artistic endeavours alone wouldn’t secure her future, and we can speculate that she had a hand in the match. They married, Joseph ran his pharmacy and Barbara looked after their son, Johann August, but continued painting.”

It would have been a great pity had she not continued. In welcoming her to the Academy of Fine Arts, the jury recognised Barbara Krafft’s gifts, as later described by a German historian in glowing terms:

Barbara Krafft: The family of Anton von Marx,  Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain
“Madam Krafft has a command of the art form and great talent, faithfully capturing the likeness of all she paints. No portrait is flawed. What’s more, she paints with great ease. She was able to paint four portraits on one canvas in just two hours. Her painting style is masculine and bold, pastels with wide strokes. No woman before her has painted so well.”

In 1792, the same year that a son was born to Joseph and Barbara, her father died. Just as bold in life as she was with her paintbrush, says researcher Zdeněk Geist, Barbara returned to Jihlava to petition for a fair share of the inheritance, which otherwise would have gone to her two brothers.

Over the next decade, she would move around the Austro-Hungarian Empire, leaving Vienna for Salzburg, then spending nine years based in Prague before returning once more to Vienna – and formally separating from her pharmacist husband in 1803.

Napoleon be damned

The house in Salzburg where Barbara Krafft lived with her children,  photo: Luckyprof,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0 AT
Perhaps Joseph had found her bold spirt, wanderlust and growing fame difficult to take – the historical record offers no definitive answers. Whatever the case, Joseph stayed in Vienna while Barbara moved with their children to Salzburg, the city of Mozart, at the age of 39, a working single mother at the dawn of the 19th century.

“What’s more, it was not long after the French Revolution and at a time when Napoleonic troops were passing through Salzburg on campaign. Nevertheless, Barbara Krafft was a very confident woman, with a good sense for business as well as the arts, and she was able to thrive even in such conditions.”

While in Prague and Moravia, Barbara Krafft executed many church painting and religious portraits, including for the altar of the Emmaus Monastery – destroyed, sadly, by an errant U.S. bombing raid a century and a half later.

“For Barbara it was evidently quite an interesting – and certainly a successful period. Her Prague atelier was in Malá Strana, quite near a number of nobles’ palaces, which was also important for gaining commissions. Many of her portraits of aristocrats survive to this day for us to admire.

“She also did a lot of figures for various churches in Prague and quite interesting work for universities. She had begun doing portraits of professors, which led to other rather prestigious commissions, including of three Hapsburg emperors.”

Krafft’s iconic 1819 rendering of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain
Barbara Krafft’s most intensely prolific period, though, was not when she worked mainly in Salzburg, from 1803 to 1821, during which time she completed an astounding number of portraits. In the final four years of her life, in the Bavarian town of Bamberg, she is reputed to have completed 145 portraits.

A posthumous painting as the face of Mozartkugeln

Today, her works are held by many important museums including the Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg, the Belvedere in Vienna, and the Städel-Galerie in Frankfurt. Among her surviving works are portraits of the emperors Josef II, Leopold II, Franz II, along with various nobles.

But none is better known than her iconic 1819 rendering of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – which is also perhaps the best known portrait of the composer, despite having been executed nearly thirty years after Mozart’s death. Zdeněk Geist again:

“The portrait was commissioned by Joseph von Sonnleithner, a Vienna librettist and concert organiser, who asked Mozart’s sister to lend him three portraits from which a posthumous painting could be made.”

Mozart Balls | Photo: Erich73,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED
Von Sonnleithner had taken great pride in his personal collection of portraits of famous composers – and wanted the painter from Jihlava, whose work he greatly admired, to paint one for him of Mozart in his prime.

But although though Barbara Krafft and Mozart had long lived in the same city, Salzburg, and could have crossed paths in Prague or Vienna, she never met the composer. Under the supervision of Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’), and perhaps borrowing some of her features, Barbara is said to have captured his likeness as no other.

Certainly Barbara Krafft’s Mozart has all but cornered the market. If you have ever been to Austria – or been brought back a souvenir from the classical music-loving Alpine country – you no doubt have seen that very portrait in miniature: it adorns the boxes and wrappers of Mozart Balls (“Mozartkugeln”) – the delicious Salzburg confection of marzipan and nougat, covered in dark chocolate, named in the composer’s honour.