Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (Austrian, 1736–1783)
14 5/8 x 9 5/8 x 11 5/8 in. (37 x 24.4 x 29.5 cm)
Purchase, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund; Lila Acheson Wallace, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Fisch, and Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Richardson Gifts, 2010 (2010.24)
After his success as the leading sculptor at the imperial court in Vienna in the 1760s, Franz Messerschmidt was prompted by personal and professional crises to leave for the provinces, and by 1777 he had settled in Pressburg (today Bratislava). There he concentrated on a series of character heads, completing more than sixty in his preferred media of tin alloy and alabaster. While they acknowledge the long-standing artistic tradition relating facial expressions to emotions, these busts are highly original in their combination of realism and abstraction. A few of the subjects, like this one, are deeply introspective (an early critic called them "refusers"). With powerful simplicity, the sculptor portrayed a balding, blocky man with his head sinking to his chest, his concentric wrinkles and symmetrical jowls creating tense patterns.
The meaning of the busts has been long debated. The series likely reflects Messerschmidt's awareness of contemporary medical theories like his Viennese neighbor Franz Anton Mesmer's belief that outward senses connect to inner emotions. However one interprets it, the series was exceptional in eighteenth-century sculpture. Messerschmidt's idea of rendering serial states of mind was a novel project in a pre-Freudian world.