Grey Room

The portrait of the Goethe family (above the red clavichord) is staged in an unusual manner: The father and the mother, the sister Cornelia and Johann Wolfgang, who is playing with a lamb, appear in elegantly draped shepherd’s costumes against the backdrop of an idealized landscape. Placing oneself in an artificial pastoral world was a popular game in genteel circles. Johann Caspar Goethe commissioned the composition in 1762 from his favourite painter Johann Conrad Seekatz. The five genii on the right in the middle ground are meant to recall the family’s other five children who died very young.

Old Mother Goethe sits there in all her glory as if she’s telling a story. Her husband stands next to her in shepherd’s dress, one hand stuck in his jacket over his breast, the other gliding down his ribs. He makes a face as if he isn’t quite satisfied with the story – it’s too exaggerated. Young Goethe stands nearby, not paying attention to either of them but tying a red ribbon around a little lamb. Next to him is his sister and, portrayed as cupids in the background, Mother Goethe’s deceased children.

Letter from Achim von Arnim to Bettine, 1808 (GH-Führer, 1999, p. 58)