Height 42 cm
The expressive head of the old man is set on a V-shaped section of his chest, which is in turn supported by a rectangular plinth. The area around the mouth and chin is concealed under a luxuriant beard and moustache. Amidst the mass of facial hair, only the mouth opening and beard offer anatomical points of reference. Although this bust is reminiscent of portraits of Socrates, Messerschmidt has here executed neither an individual portrait nor a mask representing a particular facial expression.
In this work Franz Xaver Messerschmidt rehearses a repertoire of different creative possibilities. The knit eyebrows, decoratively treated, contrast with the beard and whiskers, which resemble a mask or a wig. The eyeballs, nose, cheeks and bald pate, on the other hand, are strongly three-dimensional. The open mouth is without teeth or tongue. The facial expression is as multi-faceted as the manner of sculpting: it fluctuates between a grin, tearfulness and senility. This ambivalence in the expression represents a break ith the Baroque tradition of portraiture.
Messerschmidt received his initial training from his uncle, the Munich Rococo sculptor Johann Baptist Straub (1704–1784), in whose workshop Franz Ignaz Günther (1725–1775) and Christian Jorhan the Elder (1727–1804) were likewise apprenticed for a time. Around 1775 the young Messerschmidt went to Vienna, and at the Academy there he completed a course of training that lasted several years. In Vienna, both at court and in Enlightenment circles, he was one of the artists in greatest demand as a portrait sculptor. His most celebrated works are the so-called character heads. They were his attempt to penetrate man to his innermost, deepest reality, his soul. It is to this series of busts that the head in the Liebieghaus belongs.