Supplementary Appendix: Sophie Tischbein as the Amsterdam Sophie

Sophie Tischbein and Wilhelm Schlegel:
The “Amsterdam Sophie” [*]

Otto Fiebiger, writing in 1917, was the first to air the suspicion that Sophie Tischbein was in fact the mysterious “S.” of Friedrich Schlegel’s letters to Wilhelm during 1792–94:

And finally, it should not go unmentioned that Tischbein had Schlegel give his wife English-language instruction. The latter, Sophie by name and thirty-one years old when the Tischbeins moved to Amsterdam, had been already been married to Tischbein for nine years and was the mother of two extraordinarily charming girls, eight-year-old Caroline and four-year-old Betty. Sophie, a woman of considerable beauty and grace, was universally celebrated and adored in Amsterdam’s most genteel society.

[Here a portrait by Tischbein from 1786:]


It comes as no surprise, then, that our young poet as well, though already emotionally attached to Caroline, the widow of the Clausthal physician Böhmer, was himself rapturously charmed by this beautiful young woman and enchanted by her amiability. In the letters Friedrich Schlegel wrote to his brother in Amsterdam between early July 1792 and the end of July 1794, he frequently mentions a certain “Sophie” about whom Wilhelm seems to have written ardently enthusiastic letters (unfortunately apparently lost) both to him and to Caroline Böhmer, but about whom Wilhelm also furtively refused to provide more details despite repeated requests.

This “Sophie” has hitherto been referred simply as Schlegel’s “Amsterdam lover,” about whom nothing more is known. I have absolutely no doubt, however, that this mysterious “Sophie,” whose portrait Friedrich Schlegel so ardently entreated his brother to send along to him, was Frau Tischbein. For even the few bits of information one can glean from Friedrich’s letters accord perfectly with her personality.

We hear about Sophie in Friedrich’s letters solely between 1792 and 1794, that is, solely during the period when the Tischbeins were indeed living in Amsterdam. According to Friedrich’s remarks, Sophie is a “beautiful woman” who “sings beautifully” and in whose letters one can discern “true femininity.” [1] Although Friedrich initially suspects she is Dutch, Wilhelm expressly identifies her to him as a German. [2] From Caroline Böhmer’s question to Wilhelm Schlegel, namely, “You counted the husband among your friends?” [3] we know that Sophie’s husband was friends with Wilhelm. [4] Moreover, during the summer of 1794, Sophie is allegedly living out in the countryside, [5] and, indeed, it was at precisely this time that the Tischbein family was residing in the castle of Herr von Scherenberg.

Hence it is Sophie Tischbein — and not some other woman — who must be that beautiful songstress whose praise Wilhelm Schlegel sings in his ardent 1792 sonnet Gesang und Kuss, and perhaps the youthful poet was similarly inspired by the magic emanating from her personality to compose the sonnets An Doris, Auf die Arme der Geliebten, and Die Flucht der Stunden. [6] One can only speculate why Wilhelm Schlegel disguised his rapturous enthusiasm for Sophie Tischbein in such opaque vagueness in his letters to his brother and Caroline Böhmer. Although Schlegel was likely keen on avoiding anything that might damage the reputation of the Tischbein couple, who had, after all, received him so cordially, it was primarily his quite justifiable concern that Caroline Bömer learn absolutely nothing more specific about the woman to whom he was offering such poetic homage lest her jealousy be provoked.

Although the Tischbeins in their own turn wanted to hear nothing of the ardent affection Schlegel nurtured for Caroline Böhnmer despite her moodiness, their well-intentioned efforts at freeing their friend from the snares of this “brilliant witch,” as Tischbein referred to her, came to nothing when Schlegel’s passion prompted him to come to his beloved’s aid in the summer of 1793 during her period of grievous distress. [7] This artistic married couple, however, was sufficiently insightful and unprejudiced not to remain angry with the tempestuous lover — who had gone his own way — after his return to Amsterdam, and instead remained just as cordially inclined toward him as before.

Adolf Stoll, writing in 1923, summarizes Fiebiger’s argument and then comments concerning a possible (if surprising) explanation for these peculiar circumstances:

For more than a century, from Friedrich and Karoline Schlegel’s time up to the present, the friends of August Wilhelm Schlegel and later literary historians burned with curiosity to solve the mystery he himself carefully guarded for years, namely, who “Sophie” in Amsterdam was to whom Wilhelm devoted such ardent admiration.

It was not until four years ago that Otto Fiebiger correctly discovered on the basis of my own publication from 1896 that none other than Sophie Tischbein was the subject of that admiration. . . .

The only surprising thing here is the self-deception with which this twenty-four-year-old poet — one already known as vain and self-complacent — allowed himself to imagine that he had conquered this woman’s heart, a woman seven years his senior who was already living amid the most beautiful domestic happiness and was, moreover, a faithful and dutiful wife, one who in her entire life had never been remotely subject to reproach or even the least suspicion.

Without degrading and utterly forgetting herself, this woman could never have engaged in such condemnable behavior toward a young man whom she in any case knew to be ensnared in the clutches of a “brilliant witch,” a man, moreover, who though quite capable of being extremely charming, nonetheless neither elicited nor himself ever genuinely experienced strong passion.

She was, after all, cordial and kind toward everyone, and was likely also thus toward this language teacher who admired her and whose feelings she doubtless soon noticed, but with respect to whom she was, being seven years older, and as a woman, superior in so many ways. She may also well have been enduringly quite fond of him, something certainly attested by her later letters to him written together with her spouse; but her demonstrations of friendship were doubtless harmless, never transgressing what was appropriate and seemly.

But how, then, could Schlegel reconcile such profound and ardent feelings for this woman with those he had for years already felt for Karoline Böhmer, feelings with which he had been struggling under the very eyes of the Tischbein couple with admonishing letters to Mainz, [8] where she had been unfaithful to him, [9] she for whom he had simultaneously been expressing such similar feelings in letters to his brother, so similar in fact, that anyone who reads Friedrich’s letters often despairs at determining which of the two women is meant.

It was this woman, Karoline Böhmer, whom Schlegel was intent on winning, even at the price of his honor as a man, and it was precisely during this period — during the summer of 1793 — that he did indeed succeed in gaining her assent.

So, we are to believe that it was in such a situation that Sophie allegedly consented to enter into a clandestine affair with him, moreover, alongside Madam Böhmer? For the years of heartache at the hands of Karoline Böhmer, he sought compensation through expressions of rapturous enthusiasm for another woman, enthusiasm openly divulged to his brother in letters and rendered even more intriguing by his mystery mongering; in order to play himself up, as it were, to his brother, he intended to make his beloved — Karoline Böhmer — jealous by convincing himself, with poetic license, of his own successes with Sophie and then also pretending such had really taken place. That Wilhelm did indeed attain this goal of making Karoline Böhmer jealous is attested by Friedrich’s own letters, in which he vehemently entreats Wilhelm to be more considerate and spare Karoline, who at the time was under such extreme duress in any case.

These alleged successes with which Wilhelm is so intent on impressing his brother and enhancing his own currency with Karoline Böhmer eventually spur his cynical brother — who at the time was himself living a rather loose life — to engage in expressions of what is in fact unfounded glee, with which he in his own turn perhaps intends to goad Wilhelm into divulging the so ardently desired additional details of Wilhelm’s “relationship” with “S.”

So instead of cutting short any possibility that Friedrich might misconstrue these “successes,” Wilhelm instead exaggerates them.

What base ingratitude must Wilhelm have been conscious of when he then requested that his hospitable, gracious — and allegedly deceived — friend Tischbein do a portrait of him he might then send to Karoline Böhmer at her behest, a portrait that doubtless cost him very little if anything. Tischbein sent the picture to Friedrich in Lucka, who truth be told had to borrow money in order to take possession of it at a cost of 7 Thaler 16 Groschen for shipping. It was this portrait that Madam Böhmer requested in her most difficult hour, then quickly also asking that it be given to her, regretting only that “it could not reach out and take her hand.” [10] And he, Friedrich, himself a “graceful, dignified lout” much like Ludwig Tieck, [11] who never got out of debt his entire life, and whom Heinrich Heine could accuse of having seduced the wife of his host and then lived for years afterward from the alms of the insulted spouse, — Friedrich now goads his brother on in the alleged “affair” with Sophie and even demands vivid details of his “successes.” A repulsive notion indeed.

It is highly likely that these “successes” were quite paltry indeed, and that the “beautiful arms of the beloved,” [12] where the poet alleges to have found “heaven” in their embrace, an embrace in which “at her breast” he allegedly “eavesdropped every beat of her heart, every breath of her kisses, and enjoyed every sweet favor,” — that these arms dealt this “eavesdropper” an abrupt box on the ears, and the “kisser” a firm slap on the mouth, and that the woman possessing these charms abruptly cut off any further contact with him and fled to her spouse.

Would this mature woman and mother have allowed herself to enter into a love affair with this man almost seven years her junior, whose not entirely noble personality traits she, with her reliable feminine instinct, doubtless was able to assess correctly — would this woman have entered into a love affair merely to assuage the “wounds that this heart overcame” (wounds caused by Karoline Böhmer)?

Would she have allowed herself to be enticed away from the steady course of her life at the side of such a suitable and solicitous, adoring, beloved, and respected husband, the father of her children, onto a tangled path of passion by this as yet unsettled young man who could offer her nothing — absolutely nothing — in exchange?

Could this young man, one who loved flirtation and wooing and in sequence fluttered around Caroline Böhmer, Friederike Unzelmann, Sophie Tieck, Madame de Staël, and finally also Sophie Paulus — could he not also have idolized Sophie Tischbein without any love affair having taken place?

Wilhelm Schlegel, however, was never a firm man, not years later and even less so at that time. Such was so much the case that six years later he was not even able to keep his first wife, precisely that Karoline, on a straight path despite the fact that she owed him a debt of profound gratitude — albeit without feeling any profound love for him — and despite her having nonetheless been an at least intellectually kindred spirit who greatly respected him.

And such was also so much the case that he did not even personally confront her lover, his own friend, and instead merely tried to get his brother Friedrich to distance that lover from Karoline. [13]

And, finally, it was so much the case that he was unable, twenty years later, to convince his second wife, Sophie Paulus — a woman who, because no longer young, was certainly disposed to enter a situation of contented domesticity — to follow him into his house, despite all the efforts of, again, his brother Friedrich; instead, Sophie Schlegel, née Paulus, remained in the joyless house of her parents until her death. [14]

And this is allegedly the man who so quickly attained victory over Sophie Tischbein? No, Wilhelm Schlegel was no such conqueror of hearts!

Could the Sophie we have come to know thus far [in the book], coming as she did from a good, upright house herself, and a proven, indefatigable partner to her husband — could she have so unworthily deceived her blindly trusting and noble husband for so many years?

Could she, with such a heavy conscience, have also written together with her husband such cordial, harmlessly charming letters to her former “tempter”?

And after Schlegel returned to Amsterdam in 1793 after having been with Madam Böhmer, could Sophie have received him and continued to deal with him with the same cordiality as before? And later receive him in her own house, and then, together with her children, even visit him and his family for weeks at a time in Jena without being oppressed by her earlier guilt? Could she have lived for years in such a cordial relationship with his wife, Karoline?

When the two women did finally make each other’s acquaintance, Karoline, with her incomparable acumen, immediately recognized that there was nothing between Sophie and her own husband, Wilhelm, that might have to be concealed, and she thus grew genuinely fond of Sophie, something that, given her sincerity, would not otherwise have been possible.

The frivolous, easy disposition with which the Romantics, for the sake of an attractive witticism or a brilliant idea, might not take reality so very seriously, which they were instead quite prepared to distort in jest depending on their mood at the moment — such a disposition, though evident enough here in the behavior of Wilhelm Schlegel, was never part of the Tischbein family, which was characterized instead by a strict moral disposition that made such a serious derailment simply impossible for this valiant wife and mother.

Finally, writing even later, Josef Körner suggests an alternative to the identification as discussed above: [15]

A. Stoll, Der Maler J. F. A. Tischbein (Stuttgart 1923), 59 [see above], identifies the young Schlegel’s mysterious Amsterdam lover, “Sophie,” as the wife of the painter, who from beginning in the autumn of 1792 similarly resided in Amsterdam. At the same time, Stoll does emphasize the difficulty arising in explaining Schlegel’s self-deception, since Frau Tischbein did not in fact reciprocate his passion. Perhaps this particular “Sophie” is sooner to be identified with a certain Mademoiselle Weber mentioned in two letters Wilhelm Muilman [son of Henry Muilman] wrote to Schlegel in 1795 (manuscript: Dresden A) and from whom Schlegel did find his love reciprocated. The relationship with Sophie Tischbein, on the other hand, to whom the sonnets published in Sämmtliche Werke 1:333–36 are allegedly addressed, might be supported by the following remark Goethe makes to Schiller in a letter from Weimar on 11 January 1797: [16] “When you see Schlegel, tell him that I have been commissioned to present to him the compliments of a very pretty woman, who seemed to take a lively interest in him.” (Goethe, together with Karl August, had paid a visit to Prince Leopold in Dessau at the beginning of January, where the painter Tischbein was currently residing, and had been quite pleased by the “extremely pleasant presence” of his beautiful wife, Sophie.)


[*] The first section here is extracted from Otto Fiebiger, “Johann Friedrich August Tischbein und August Wilhelm Schlegel,” Die Grenzboten (1917), 36:313–32, 37:333–41, here 304–6. — Footnotes are from the present editor. Fiebiger draws his own information concerning the Tischbeins primarily (and cites such in his footnoes, not included here) from Adolf Stoll’s earlier edition of Caroline Tischbein’s memoirs, “Aus zwei Aufzeichnungen von Karoline Wilken über ihren Vater Johann Friedrich August Tischbein und über ihre eigene Jugendzeit,” in Der Geschichtschreiber Friedrich Wilken (Cassel 1896), 254–338. — The second section is extracted from Adolf Stoll, Der Maler Joh. Friedrich August Tischbein und seine Familie: Ein Lebensbild nach den Aufzeichnungen seiner Tochter Caroline (Stuttgart 1923), here 59–63. Back.

[1] In order: Friedrich to Wilhelm on 28 August 1793 (letter 134); also Walzel, 48, 85 (KFSA 23:54; 92; not included in present edition); Friedrich to Wilhelm on 24 March 1793 (letter 121b). Back.

[2] Friedrich to Wilhelm in late July 1794 (letter 145a). Back.

[3] Friedrich to Wilhelm on 21(–25) November 1792 (letter 118b). Back.

[4] Earlier in the article, Fiebiger does indeed emphasize what close friends Johann Friedrich August Tischbein and Wilhelm had become in Amsterdam despite their age difference. Back.

[5] Friedrich to Wilhelm in late July 1794 (letter 145a). Back.

[6] Sämmtliche Werke 1:333–36. Back.

[7] See Erich Schmidt’s Introduction to Lucka. Back.

[8] Where Caroline was currently living. Back.

[9] An allusion to Caroline’s affair with Jean-Baptiste Dubois de Crancé. Back.

[10] See Friedrich to Wilhelm on 4–5 November 1793 (letter 136.1). Back.

[11] Caroline to Pauline Gotter on 1 March 1809 (letter 440). Back.

[12] In this and the following paragraph, Stoll is citing from and alluding to Wilhelm’s alleged poem to Sophie “Die Flucht der Stunden,” Sämmtliche Werke, 1:336. Back.

[13] See Dorothea Veit and Friedrich Schlegel to Schleiermacher on 25 September 1801 (letter 329h). Back.

[14] An indeed sad and wretched story one can follow in the correspondence between Wilhelm and the Paulus family between September 1818 and January 1819 in Körner (1930), vols. 1 (text) and 2 (notes). Back.

[15] Körner (1930), 2:115. Back.

[16] Correspondence Between Goethe and Schiller, 1:283. Back.

Translation © 2012 Doug Stott