(b. 1736, Wiesensteig, d. 1783, Bratislava)

Character Head: The Gentle, Quiet Sleep

Tin cast, height 44 cm
Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest

This work belongs to a series of more than fifty known heads, represented partly with very suggestive but hardly identifiable grimaces, partly with realistic faces. Some of them are thought to be the artist's self portraits. The series is known by the name Character Heads. Messerschmidt began to execute them on his own initiative, in 1770-72, while still in Vienna, and continued working on them until his death. According to a statement he himself gave to the enlightened scholar Friedrich Nicolai, these works helped him to break the power of certain dangerous spirits. The artist had been suffering form hallucinations and persecutory delusion since the beginning of the seventies, and these heads made by him had a healing and protective function. He thought it possible to withstand the supposed deadly peril by representing - and also by putting on - these grimaces. And even the faces without grimaces seem to be fixed on an imagined something or somebody opposite.

After Messerschmidt's death sixty-nine such heads were found in his Bratislava house, made in part of lead cast or tin cast, in part of alabaster. They passed into the property of his brother Johann Adam. Ten years later no more than forty heads remained; they were brought to Vienna and there exhibited several times during the year. For the first of these expositions, in 1793, an anonymous author published a short guide, compiled on the basis of the already published sources of Messerschmidt's life. The guide presented the pieces of the series as Character Heads, and gave names to the single heads, adding one a short explanation for each. At the same time every work was denoted by a number on its socle. The appellations, even if unjustified, are still used today, for no better names have been found. Even the succession of the pieces, established by the anonymous author has not changed, and it is also hardly possible to determine a more proper one. As far as we know, the artist himself gave no names to these works, and he certainly did not consider them character heads.

In the course of time the series often changed hands. In 1889 the heads were bought one by one at an auction, and from that time on they had very various fates. Now they can be found in several public and private collections, although many have disappeared. On the basis of the remaining thirty-six originals, most of them in Vienna's Österreichisches Barockmuseum, and of some old plaster casts and photos, we can reconstruct the whole series of forty heads. In the meantime six other heads were found, without names and numbers, so they obviously belong to the twenty pieces which had disappeared between 1783 and 1793. The head named The gentle, quiet sleep (Der sanfte ruhige Schlaf) was the eighth one in the succession determined by the anonymous author. This number was engraved on the socle.

The displayed work belongs to the heads without grimace, considered Messerschmidt's self portraits. This is the only one with no dilated or squinting, but quiet closed eyes. This motif induced the anonymous author to call it The gentle, quiet sleep. This name is, however delusive, for the work represents not a sleeping man, but one concentrating with closed eyes. It is hardly determinable, which aspect it could represent in the range of Messerschmidt's insanity. In contrast to with other heads of the series, this work has a soft modelling, and represents some of Messerschmidt's rejuvenated and even idealized traits. On the basis of the modelling it can be dated at an early period, and considered as one of Messerschmidt's first works of this kind. This is however, at variance with the strong accentuated eyebrows, which can be observed only in the late works of the master.