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A Hunger for Knowledge, a Passion for Paper

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Goethe’s collection of drawings, etchings and prints gives a fascinating insight into the poet’s journey to understanding art


Prints & Multiples

Figure 1: Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) Faust, ca. 1652, drypoint etching (3rd phase) on paper, 21 by 16 cm.
Copyright: Klassik Stiftung Weimar Image Source

Inés Gutierrez, London, UK

 ‘I have not collected following an arbitrary mood, but have made acquisitions each time according to a plan and a purpose, for my own continuous education, and have learned from every single work in my possession.’
Johann Wolfgang Goethe 1.

The achievements of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) as a writer, poet and intellectual are widely recognised: his drama Faust counts as one of the most important works of German literature, his colour theory is still taught at school and his name crowns pretty much any institution that teaches Germany’s language and culture. In this context, it is surprising to find that Goethe’s activity as a passionate collector is often overlooked and only the subject of specialist research.

Born in 1749 in Frankfurt am Main, Goethe started his career as lawyer, initially working in Frankfurt and then moving in 1775 to the court of Weimar, where he oversaw the Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar’s finances and the building of infrastructures. By then Goethe had already written the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther which propelled him into fame, but it was at the court of Weimar that he developed into an 18th Century Renaissance man: well-versed in literature, politics, science, and art. Growing up during the Enlightenment made Goethe approach a discipline systematically and with the ultimate aim of acquiring a rounded knowledge of the subject he set out to study. It is precisely this hunger for knowledge rather than a longing to possess beauty that informs his attitude as a collector.

Although Goethe criticised the impulsive acquisition of pieces in the above quote, he himself had started collecting works on paper as a young lawyer without any other goal than the purchase of what he was fond of. 2. Collecting had become in the course of the 18th Century an activity practiced by aristocrats and bourgeois alike, and quality works of art were readily available to the educated public in trading centres such as Frankfurt, Leipzig or Hamburg. 3.

In Goethe’s case it was in Weimar that he started to develop a true connoisseurship and appreciation for prints and engravings, as his appointment at the court soon included the task of curating the Duke’s art collection. While purchasing paintings, Chinese furniture and other fine art objects for the Duke, Goethe started to systematically increase his own art collection. Goethe’s financial and spatial resources were, unlike the Duke’s, fairly limited, so he focussed on smaller scale pieces, amassing 11500 works on paper, including over 9000 prints and 2200 drawings during his lifetime. His collection of 50 paintings, which includes a portrait by Cranach the Younger (1515 – 1586) and 18th century contemporaries such as Friedrich Bury (1763 – 1823) and Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829) is in this respect relatively small. 4.

Works on paper were not only more manageable in terms of size but they were also stored in a similar way to books. Goethe, first and foremost a man of letters, hence accessed his art collection as he did his library: the sheets were kept in folders and stored in a drawing cabinet. Goethe would take out one folder, sit down by his desk and carefully examine a sheet of his choice. 5. Since art and its story were subjects that Goethe was determined to learn and understand, he acquired works from different schools and studied them systematically in order to establish the nature of art, its overarching purpose and meaning. It was an undoubtedly ambitious and ultimately unobtainable goal, but a goal that nevertheless pushed him to widen his collection in terms of subjects and quality. 6.   

As his collection grew, Goethe decided to organize his sheets by schools, an order that allowed him to identify gaps, which he subsequently tried to fill in. At the point of Goethe’s death, the collection was by no means complete, but covered different schools in depth, such as the Italian Renaissance and Mannerism, as well as works by German and Dutch 16th - 17th Century Masters including Martin Schongauer (1448 – 1491), Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) and Peter-Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640).

By studying his collection, Goethe acquired a sense of the development of art history impacting his appreciation and understanding of the younger generation of artists, the Romantics and the Nazarenes, whom he initially considered sceptically and with a slight frown. 7. This attitude should not come as a surprise; during Goethe’s time the fashion favoured a restrained and sober Neoclassic style. The Romantics’ insistency on the importance of expressing deep emotions through art was hence unwelcomed by Goethe, who set out to publicly engage with contemporary artists by creating the journal Propyläen. He used this publication to articulate his thoughts on art and the direction art should be taking. In addition, he also founded a yearly art contest, together with his secretary Heinrich Meyer, intended to set new parameters of taste and quality for German artists. 8. Both initiatives were initially welcomed by the younger generation of artists, since Goethe was a well-respected figure within the intellectual and artistic circles of Weimar and beyond. Despite this effort, Goethe’s and the jury’s taste and verdicts proved to be out of touch with the Romantic spirit of the time, failing to acknowledge the talent of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) and Philip Otto Runge (1777 – 1810). 9. Once the criticism towards the contest became too evident to be ignored, Goethe retracted from his assumed position as a guide of the arts and focussed his attention on his collection once more. 10.    

Goethe in der Romanische Campagna

Figure 2: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751 – 1829) Goethe in der römischen Campagna, Oil on linen, 164 x 206 cm
Copyright: Städelmuseum Frankfurt Image Source

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Goethe’s activity as a collector was not driven by the pleasure of possessing art but by the desire to create a comprehensive archive to provide a visual, encyclopaedic record of Western art. Since Goethe often sourced reproductions of artists’ masterpieces and was generally more concerned with completing his archive than with the quality of the reproduction, several works in his collection are either badly executed, in bad condition or of debatable attribution. 11.

However, Goethe did have an eye for acquiring works of important provenance, purchasing through the art dealer Carl G. Boerner a number of works from the Prince of Schwarzenberg’s estate, including Rembrandt’s etching of Faust (Figure 1). 12. The legend of Dr Faustus had already been popular in Rembrandt’s time and the artist masterfully captures Faust’s mixture of fear and curiosity when the sign of the Spirit of Earth appears to him. The availability of this work must have appeared serendipitous to Goethe, as he was working on the second part of the eponymous drama. 13. But it should not be forgotten that available pieces like these were rare and did not happen without its due amount of effort, copious letter-writing and hours of reading through thick volumes of inventories of collections.

In fact, finding works of note, let alone actively collecting, in German principalities during Goethe’s time seems now a rather quixotic affair involving acquisition or loans of a catalogue or index of an artist’s oeuvre to identify the works of interest, then entrusting the search to an art dealer or setting out to find the work by visiting other collectors and collections. There was little opportunity to examine the works in person since travelling across the principalities was tediously bureaucratic and expensive, but this could sometimes be overcome by the medium of post: on occasions a dealer would send via the post carriage a whole folder with prints to Goethe, who would choose the works he was interested in and then return the rest. The element of trust in the art dealer seems to have been quintessential in this process, since authenticity and attributions were hardly questioned. Goethe’s increasingly discerning eye helped him to ‘fish for pearls’, but on occasions wrongly attributed sheets were sold in good faith and made their way into his collection. 14.

After Goethe died in 1832, the collection remained in Weimar with the poet’s family. It was not until 1885, with the death his last descendant Walther von Goethe that the house and the collection were turned into the Goethe-Nationalmuseum. Now looked after by the Klassik-Stiftung Weimar, Goethe’s collection of art and artefacts is largely on view in his house.15. Although the overall quality of Goethe’s the corpus of works on paper is not consistent, the collection remains an important testimony to the poet’s relentless pursuit of knowledge through the study and examination of works of art.


1. “Ich habe nicht nach Laune oder Willkür, sondern jedesmal mit Plan und Absicht zu meiner eigenen folgerechten Bildung gesammelt und an jedem Stück meines Besitzes etwas gelernt”, conversation notes by Friedrich Müller on 19th November 1830, FA I, 17, p. 785. Translation by the author.

2. Johannes Grave, Der ‘ideale Kunstkörper’. Johann Wolfgang Goethe als Sammler von Druckgraphiken und Zeichnungen (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006), p. 93.

3. Dieter Gleisberg, ‘ “…im Zusammenhang wird jedes Blatt instructiv”, Goethe als Kunstsammler in seinem Verhältnis zu Carl Gustav Boerner,’in Goethe, Boerner und die Künstler ihrer Zeit ed. by C. G. Boerner (Düsseldorf; New York: C.G. Boerner, 1999),  p. 12.

4. Gleisberg, pp. 9-10.

5. Grave, pp. 365-367.

6. Grave, p. 430.

7. Grave, p. 148. 

8. John Gage, Goethe on Art (London: Scolar Press, 1980), pp. 3-16. Grave, pp. 328.

9. Philip Otto Runge’s initial reverence towards Goethe and his subsequent challenge of his theories illustrates clearly the shifting attitude of the early Romantics, see Philipp Otto Runge. Briefwechsel, ed. by Peter Betthausen (Leipzig: Seemann Verlag, 2010), pp. 46, 210-217. For further reading see Helmut Boersch Supan, ‘Goethes Kenntnis über Kunst in der Goethezeit’ in Goethe und die Kunst, ed. by Sabine Schulze (Ostfildern: 1994), pp. 269-277; and Ernst Osterkamp, Die Geburt der Romantik aus dem Geiste des Klassizismus. Goethe als Mentor seiner Zeit  in: Goethe Jahrbuch 112, (Weimar: Wallstein,1995), pp. 135-148.

10. Grave, p. 123.

11. Grave, pp. 259-263.

12. Gleisberg, pp. 19-20.

13. The etching was sold at auction in Leipzig following the death of the Prince of Schwarzenberg in 1820. Goethe’s Faust I appeared in 1808, and he worked on the second part of the drama, Faust II, until the end of the 1820s. Faust II was not published until 1832.

14. Gleisberg, p. 22, Grave, p. 210, Terry Pinkard, German Philosophy 1760-1860. The Legacy of Idealism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 6-12.

15. Apart from works on paper and paintings, Goethe also collected medals, cameos and intaglios as well as Majolica and scientific objects and instruments. Further information about Goethe’s Museum can be found on