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Article Felix Mendelssohn: Art Works

Image: Amalfi Cliffs, drawing by Mendelssohn
Drawing from Felix Mendelssohn's travels to Italy (n.d.) from The Moldenhauer Archives - The Rosaleen Moldenhauer Memorial. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

The development of Mendelssohn's musical and compositional skills parallels that of another aspect of his creativity: his skills in drawing and painting, which, like music, became a means of expression on which he relied throughout his life.

Mendelssohn's early education, like that of most well-educated children of his time, included instruction in drawing. From at least 1822 (at about the age of thirteen) he began to draw in sketchbooks, many of which have survived in archival and private collections worldwide. All told, approximately three hundred artworks of Mendelssohn have survived to our day.

While in his youth he initially appeared to favor the medium of pen-and-ink for his drawings, the composer increasingly turned to drawing in pencil. Concurrent with his drawings, Mendelssohn began to develop his skills in watercolor painting as well. The composer's surviving sketchbooks and paintings reveal him to be a prolific and talented artist who strove throughout his life to cultivate his gifts.

A three-month journey in 1822 by the Mendelssohn family through the dramatic mountains, lakes and villages of Switzerland inspired the creation of more than forty landscapes, rendered in ink over pencil, by the fifteen year old Felix. Trips to Scotland in 1829 and to Italy in 1831 provided further inspiration for Mendelssohn, who produced numerous sketches of these locales' breathtaking scenery (including several of the cliffs at Amalfi, Italy, one of which is held in the collections of the Library of Congress and featured on the present website. Mendelssohn's correspondence reveals that drawing and painting, whether performed at home or on trips, always proved an ideal respite from his compositional labors; on one trip to Switzerland in 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to his friend Karl Klingemann (with whom he had traveled to Scotland in 1829) that during his entire month-long trip to Switzerland, "I composed not even a bit of music, but rather drew entire days, until my fingers and eyes ached."

He was also able to rely on drawing as a creative outlet on those occasions when he found musical composition impossible, such as during the grief-stricken months following his beloved sister Fanny's unexpected death in May 1847. Mendelssohn sought refuge from his grief by traveling with his family to Switzerland, where, twenty-five years before, he had spent several enjoyable months with his parents, Fanny, and his other siblings. During this latest trip, which took place in the months preceding his own untimely death in November 1847, Mendelssohn poured his grief into the creation of a series of watercolor landscapes, described by his nephew Sebastian Hensel (the only son of Fanny and Wilhelm Hensel) as "remarkable," exhibiting the same attention to detail both in observation and rendering of their subjects, but with "a much greater freedom of handling, and force and harmony of coloring." The resulting works -- of "old familiar mountain summits... on which Time makes little impression" -- depicted a natural world, nearly devoid of any trace of man, infinite in scope.

Watercolor of Gewandhaus, by Felix MendelssohnMendelssohn's stunning watercolor depiction of a portion of the Gewandhaus (literally, a clothiers' or clothworkers' hall; eventually used to indicate Leipzig, Germany's concert hall) in was executed in remembrance of a performance at that venue on February 11, 1836, which was conducted by Mendelssohn, and in which soprano Henriette Grabau (1806-1852) participated. The work performed on that occasion was the sextet from Luigi Cherubini's opera Ali Baba, which served as the concert's finale, and in which Grabau performed; the musical quotation that accompanies the watercolor is from the Introduction to that opera's Act I. (Excerpts from Ali Baba were also featured on Mendelssohn's inaugural concert as conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra on October 4, 1835; his appointment with the orchestra would prove to be a productive association which he would continue to enjoy until the end of his life, and one which allowed him to make significant contributions to German musical culture.)

The watercolor, measuring 10.0 by 9.4 cm (with musical quotation, 15.6 by 9.4 cm), and dated Leipzig, February 23, 1836, may have been executed by Mendelssohn simply as a memento of the performance itself, or, as scholar Donald Mintz speculates in his article about the work ("Mendelssohn's Water Color of the Gewandhaus," Notes, 2nd Ser., Vol. 18, No. 2, March 1961, pages 210-218), as a betrothal present for Grabau, who was married the following year. The watercolor is pasted on the inside front cover of an album that once belonged to Grabau, and which also contains holograph manuscripts of two songs by Mendelssohn (Lieder ohne Worte, op. 85, no. 3 -- composed the week before he left for Leipzig to assume his new appointment at the Gewandhaus -- and op. 38, no. 2 -- also a gift for Grabau); two autographed, signed letters of Mendelssohn (one undated, and one dated 1838), as well as one autographed, signed letter each from Robert Schumann (undated) and Clara Schumann (1852); and a few signatures, including one from Franz Liszt. The so-called "Grabau Album" is held within the Library of Congress's Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation Collection under the call number "ML30.8b .M46 op. 85, no. 3 1836 Case."

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  • Felix Mendelssohn: Art Works


  • -  Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Felix -- 1809-1847 -- -- composer
  • -  Articles
  • -  Songs and Music


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