Portrait on a snuffbox identified as Mozart

Experts at Salzburg’s Mozarteum have identified a miniature portrait on ivory embedded in the lid of a snuffbox as an authentic portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In preparation for Pictures of Mozart: A Portrait Between Imagination and Reality, an exhibition of authenticated, dubious and fake Mozart portraits which opens January 26th in the Mozart Residence, researchers re-examined all the portraits belonging to the International Mozarteum Foundation in detail. By analyzing the wee oval painting (it’s just 3 by 2.5 centimeters) and the historical record, they were able to confirm that the miniature on the tobacco tin is a portrait of the composer painted in 1783 by Johann Grassi.

Mozart was 27 in 1783, living in Vienna and already famous as an exceptional keyboard player and composer. It’s known that he and Grassi met in Vienna at this time. The portrait is unusual because it’s most of the images of him depict him in profile or looking away from the viewer. This is one of few that shows him looking directly at the viewer, and it’s the only one painted after 1781. It’s also rare to see Mozart not wearing his peruke. His hair is powdered, but it’s his real hair.

The box was acquired by the International Mozarteum Foundation in 1956. The Foundation has been able to trace the ownership record of the tin back to Johann Grassi himself. He apparently added his portrait of Mozart to the snuffbox after the composer’s death in 1791, eight years after the miniature was painted. We know an 1829 engraving of Mozart by Dresden printmaker Johann Gottschick was modeled after the miniature because Gottschick said as much. It wasn’t until this latest research that experts were able to confirm the snuffbox miniature was the authentic original.

Research can’t always produce good news. Another portrait owned by the Foundation which has long been considered a portrait of Mozart as a child has been found to be a fake, not a mistake, a fake. Boy with a Bird’s Nest, a sweet portrait of a boy holding a nightingale nest, is inscribed “Mozart 1764.” The artist was eight years old in 1764 and the boy in the painting looks around that age. The large (31 by 24 inches) oil painting was purchased by the Mozarteum Foundation from a British art dealer in 1924 for what was a considerable sum at the time.

Unfortunately, what the experts found is that the inscription was not original the painting. It was added around the time of the sale, an intentional deception to raise the price and sell the piece to the Mozarteum. Even the claimed artist, Joseph Zoffany, and his signature is fake. The painting is by some unknown British painter and its subject is a nameless English noble child. It bears no relation to Mozart whatsoever.

There are only 14 confirmed portraits of Wolfgang Mozart known. The Foundation owns 12 of them. The exhibition brings them all together with pieces loaned from other institutions to compare authenticated portraits to questionable ones to known fakes. It’s the first time all these images of the genius will be together in one place.