Supplementary Appendix: Eduard d’Alton

Eduard d’Alton in Dorothea’s Florentin and as Wilhelm Schlegel’s Colleague [*]

Dorothea Veit’s former lover from her youth, Johann Wilhelm Eduard d’Alton, provided the prototype for the protagonist of her novel, Florentin. Ein Roman herausgegeben von Friedrich Schlegel, vol. 1 (Leipzig 1801). See Franz Deibel, Dorothea Schlegel als Schriftstellerin im Zusammenhang mit der romantischen Schule (Berlin 1905), 45–47:

The adventurous nature of the itinerant years of d’Alton’s youth could certainly keep pace with those of Florentin in Dorothea’s novel.

An extraordinarily gifted man whose name is adduced with respect in two different disciplines, also a painter, etcher, writer, anatomist, archaeologist, experienced art scholar — in his youth he, like most of the Romantics, had no permanent home, and was a man whose personality radiated nervous restlessness and restiveness. “I doubt he will remain anywhere for very long,” Friedrich Schlegel remarked the first time he met him [here letter 225].

The whiff of the adventurous that apparently genuinely did characterize this remarkable man also prompted Schlegel to remark that “he looks exactly like someone who would be making his fortune in France” [ibid.]. An interesting and amiable aventurier filled with Romantic restlessness, d’Alton did indeed seek his destiny just as long as do the heroes of Romantic novels, not finding it until the mature years of manhood.

The years of his youth were characterized by constant journeys and wanderings whose goals — Italy, France, England, America — also recur in his literary reflection in the novel. Like Florentin, so also was d’Alton educated in a military school for the nobility, and like Florentin he also abandoned his military career for art. He painted and drew, as does Dorothea’s hero, without ever really feeling completely called to be an artist.

Friedrich Schlegel [ibid.] compares him with the sauvage in Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité, and d’Alton is called “wild” in other letters, as also in the duet “Sehnsucht und Ruhe” in Lucinde; [1] Florentin, too, is described as being “wild” and as striving for freedom. This man who, wherever he went, impressed others as a distinguished, interesting individual, a man whose remarkable silhouette still rivets the observer, seems like a male counterpart to the adventurous Madame de Gachet, who was to be portrayed in another Romantic novel, Brentano’s Godwi, [2] and whom the peculiar disposition of fate also once associated with him. [3]

If Varnhagen is to be believed, d’Alton’s origins, like those of Florentin, were cloaked in mystery, though it does seem questionable whether this popular literary motif was incorporated from real life into the book or vice versa. The later director of the Tiefurt stud farm and author of a natural history of horses, who was also acquainted with Goethe, also provided lesser, and less essential features to the hero Florentin, such as being a connoisseur of beautiful horses; and when Florentin’s own imagination wanders into the age of knighthood, he seems to be sharing this feature as well with d’Alton, who even in his late fifties published a chivalric novel.

But even more important than such specific instances of concurrence is the more general concurrence, one attesting the life of a Romantic individual that is no less romantic than the lives of the heroes of the novels of the period. Precisely in this age, an age that tended to be more disinclined toward what one generally calls the “reality” of existence, such portraits in these novels are not uncommon, and the mutual interaction between art and life there no less intensive. That is, life and literature were subject to the same conditions; “Romanticism” means more than merely a “literary movement.”

As it turned out, Wilhelm Schlegel later became friends with d’Alton, the latter having become a professor of archaeology in Bonn, where Wilhelm himself was teaching. Wilhelm wrote about the considerable art collection left behind in d’Alton’s estate, calling him his “oracle in matters of art.” See Wilhelm’s “Vorerinnerung zu dem Verzeichniss von d’Altons Gemälde-Sammlung, und ausführliche Beurtheilung dreier darin befindlichen Bilder,” Sämmtliche Werke 9:372–81, here 372–73:

My late friend Eduard d’Alton was a great connoisseur of both art and nature equally. In the latter capacity, he acquired well-merited and enduring renown among European scholars through his zoological works, which he illustrated with his own excellent drawings. Although he never published anything more extensive on the theory and history of the formative arts, for the past twenty years he did deliver lectures on the subject that were as learned as they were elegant and inspired. The illustrious sons of princes whom we had the great fortune to reckon among our academic citizenry were introduced into this sanctuary of cultured spirits by my friend.

D’Alton united in a single person the philosophical natural scientist and the applied artist. He consistently observed the varied productions of nature with reference to the infinite whole; his artistic vision penetrated the surface of living forms down to their innermost structure. Thus were immediate physiognomic impressions transformed within him, as it were on their own initiative, into scientific observations.

On the other hand, his sensibility unerringly recognized the reflection of nature — nature as the grand, primal artist — in the genuine creations of genius. No borrowed or artificial elements, nothing formed according to arbitrarily rote practice escaped his discerning eye. His insight into the essence of art encompassed everything, from the highest idea down to the practicing artist’s most modest techniques and formative aids.

From my early youth I have been drawn to the fine arts. Later I had the opportunity to observe, repeatedly, the most important works and art collections in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, France, and England. I spent hours and indeed days in the studios of and in intimate contact with the most excellent painters and sculptors of the age, and while our thoughts, stimulated through free exchange, traversed the expansive regions of art itself, I saw — beneath the subtle guidance of the painter’s brush or the sculptor’s instrument — something both meaningful and beautiful emerge from formless matter.

This, to a certain extent, served as a substitute for me with respect to the actual production of such art, and rendered theory into a more plastic, visual experience. And yet I gladly acknowledge the superiority of my friend d’Alton. He was my oracle in matters of art. Whenever his quick assessment coincided with my own, earlier view, I took that as the most welcome confirmation.


[*] Portrait by Johann Joseph Schmeller. — Concerning d’Alton in these letters, see also Friedrich Schlegel to Caroline in late March 1799 (letter 225) and Dorothea to Karoline Paulus from Cologne in September 1804 (letter 387b). Back.

[1] “Yearning and Peace,” Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis 1971), 125–27. Back.

[2] Clemens Brentano, Godwi oder das steinerne Bild der Mutter, ein verwildeter Roman von Maria, 2 vols. (Bremen 1801/02). Back.

[3] As the “horse painter Dalton” in Brentano’s posthumous Clemens Brentano’s Frühlingskranz: aus Jugendbriefen ihm geflochten wie er selbst schriftlich verlangte, ed. Bettine Brentano (Charlottenburg 1844), 99:

Madam Gachet announced herself for a visit with rather strange companions, a certain chemist Buch, a religious scholar Maijer, a horse painter Dalton. This horse genius is allegedly quite interesting, the blind Dux will also be there. I am already looking forward to all of them, and my heart is racing, though I will doubtless also be quite aware of myself in the presence of the woman who guides a horse as does a man! — For cannot I myself perhaps guide something similar to a mare, or even more? Back.

Translation © 2013 Doug Stott