Johann Sebastian BACH
Portrait in Old Age

One of the few portraits of Bach which have come down to us is that by Elias Gottlieb Haussmann, Court Painter at Dresden. Bach is seen holding a fragment of a Canon. Though it is widely used in musical literature and CD presentations today, the somewhat distorted expression was surely not an accurate image of the Master.

During a visit to Leipzig in 1985 we spent some time in the Town Hall, viewing among other attractions, the portraits of many generations of the Mayors of Leipzig which hang around the main gallery. Several of the mayoral portraits were painted by Haussmann, and we were struck by the fineness of the brushwork and accuracy of detail. We had a long talk with one of the senior curators, and mentioned at some point our feelings about the Haussmann Bach portrait. She smiled enigmatically and took us to the original. Then explaining that this was only to be done rarely and briefly, she turned on the light to illuminate the Haussmann portrait. We were aghast to see the hurried brushwork, rough strokes and lack of detail. The curator told us of a long Leipzig tradition, that Bach was always in a hurry, would never sit for long, and that Haussmann complained he was never able to finish the work properly.

Be that as it may, we have always preferred the wonderful Altersbild, the Portrait of Bach in Old Age shown below. Its history, insofar as it can be surmised or ascertained, is interesting in itself.

Johann Christian Kittel (1732-1809), one of Bach's last pupils, became Organist of the Predigerkirche in Erfurt. He possessed a portrait of his master, which he had hung on the organ. He is said to have rewarded his pupils for good playing by drawing aside the curtain which usually covered the picture, and permitting them to look upon it. This portrait disappeared after Kittel's death in 1809, during the Napoleonic Wars. The 19th century Bach scholar Professor Fritz Volbach of Mainz discovered a portrait which he supposed to be the lost Erfurt portrait. It may well be so, since it represents a man of some sixty years, austere in countenance, but of a dignity which is not apparent in Haussmann's portraiture. Here, surely, is the face of the Bach whose latter years gave us the B-Minor Mass, the Goldberg Variations, the Musical Offering and the Art of the Fugue.............

This portrait, which has come to be known simply as the Altersbild, was published in 1904 as Volume IV part 2 of the New Bachgesellschaft. It appeared on two LP jackets in the Cantate Bach Cantata series and the present writer obtained a large portrait-sized copy from the Archives of Bärenreiter, Kassel in the mid 1960s. It hung proudly in the recording studio of Oryx Recordings, the "studio" itself being the old ballroom, 17ft x 35ft, two floors high, of an 18th century home in a green suburb of London.

Bach Portrait at Age 35 Bach Portrait in Old Age Altersbild

Bach at 35, and Bach at 60.

Johann Sebastian BACH: A Biography

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