Goethe’s goals for and organization
of the Weimar art competitions 1800–1802
In his article “Die Preisaufgabe betreffend. 1. Preisertheilung 1800” in the Propyläen 3, no. 1 (1800), 97–102, after introductory comments, Goethe describes the conception behind these artistic competitions, which were sponsored by the Weimar Friends of the Arts (Weimarer Ausgabe 48:11–19, here 12–15):
What caused us the most concern at the beginning of this enterprise [of the Propyläen] was our having experienced the irreconcilable misunderstanding between artist and artist, connoisseur and connoisseur, art lover and art lover, and no less between the three classes themselves.
One need only have wandered through the art collections in Rome amid larger groups, visited the Greek coffeehouse — the artists’ stock market in Rome — or compared the opinions of the artists, cicerones, and foreigners with one another, and one will soon abandon all hope of ever uniting the opinions of such different people, opinions unlikely ever to concur with respect not only to what ought to be accomplished artistically, but also to what is valuable in that which has already been accomplished.
And yet how could it be otherwise, considering that everyone presupposes an understanding of art without ever really reflecting on art’s own demands, just as so many people simply presuppose a certain understanding of the human being without really knowing much about human beings to begin with. On an individual level, people praise and reject, love and hate, and rarely ever come to anything resembling an overview of the whole.
In the meantime, however, one could sometimes catch a glimpse of more proximate harmony, especially when something simply emerged, as it were, on the spur of the moment. It was a time when German artists sometimes gathered together in the evening, came to an agreement on the spot about a competition, and immediately went about carrying it out. It was the moment itself that determined what would actually emerge at that given moment; in this ingenious game, all normal demands fell silent, merit was acknowledged and praised, conversation was more impartial and pleasant than ever.
Such is doubtless the course art takes in the larger sense during its more fortunate and successful periods. The artist expresses his disposition with his stylus, the genius introduces a new creation, connoisseurs and art lovers discuss what has just been produced, which, if fortune be smiling, is commensurate with the present stage of culture. Another contemporary artist views the new piece his rival has presented, appropriates what is effective and successful in the piece, and thus does one work of art emerge from an earlier one.
Art is traveling along the correct path toward its goal when, by working toward creating a completed, perfect piece, the vista is opened up that shows us how yet another might be even more perfect.
These and similar observations prompted us to present annual thematic competitions and to invite artists to address those themes. We hoped that by doing so we might gradually become familiar with the status of art in our fatherland and also to influence the artistic moment itself within the limits of our powers.
Even given the small number of entries in last year’s competition, we were gratified by not a few pleasant pieces and by several quite interesting new acquaintances. This year, however, such was even more the case insofar as we had almost thirty entries, including masterpieces that quenched our satisfaction with respect to the moment, as well as the works of younger men that provided excellent prospects for the future.
What was especially pleasing in this regard was that most of the artists who honored us with their confidence last year reappeared this year as well, and that we could clearly see how faithfully they had indeed enhanced their own talent in the short intervening period.
Indeed, we have to admit that, given the considerable number of entries this year, we were almost ashamed at the paltry prize we had to offer. We would have preferred a larger, more generous prize, in part as a more significant token of gratitude to the artists to whom the first prize was awarded, and in part to honor the second prize winner and give mention to the valiant artists meriting such.
We have, however, been put all the more at ease amid said limitations insofar as both the overall results as well as the particular utterances of several artists who included courteous letters with their works had persuaded us of the selflessness and the true striving for art itself and for genuine exchange with friends of the arts animating our German artists.
Hence may this prize serve as the occasion in the future as well to unite several striving artists in working toward a single goal; our own efforts will be directed toward making our journal [the Propyläen] increasingly useful to them and the public.
We can even now view as a fine result of the competition that we may acknowledge the names of four meritorious artists before their fatherland. Messieurs Hartmann and Kolbe, who received the prize last year, and Messieurs Nahl and Hoffmann, to whom first place was awarded this year.
Before proceeding to our review of the entries themselves, the following preliminary remark is in order.
Regarding the order in which we enumerate the entries, we have decided to begin with the Death of Rhesus of Herr Joseph Hoffmann from Cologne, to whom a third of the prize money (ten Ducats) will go, to descend incrementally, and then ascend from the least piece, the Farewell of Hector, up to the best piece in the entire collection, a drawing by Herr Professor Nahl from Kassel, to whom two thirds of the prize money (twenty Ducats) will be awarded, so that the beginning and end of our review might present the high points of our exhibition alongside each other this year.
In his competition announcement for the coming year, “Die neue Preisaufgabe auf 1801: Achill auf Scyros,” Goethe’s describes the two themes for the competition (as mentioned in Caroline’s letter to Wilhelm on 16 November 1801 [letter 330]) as well as the competition conditions (Weimarer Ausgabe 48:19–21):
The New Competition for 1801
Achilles on Skyros
1. Achilles on Skyros, hidden among the daughters of Lycomedes
Odysseus and Diomedes are dispatched to discover him; amid all sorts of clothing and such, they also bring along weapons, which delights Achilles, whereas the women reach for the more pleasing wares; a bellicose noise emerges, he equips himself for battle, and is discovered. The scene is made more interesting by allusions to his relationship with Deïdameia, the daughter of Lycomedes, who is loath to let him go, perhaps also to his relationship with a boy, the fruit of their secret love that only now is revealed.
We will not anticipate the artist, saying merely that this particular subject has but one moment in which all these motifs coincide.
On closer examination, this subject greatly resembles the farewell of Hector, except that here everything appears more passionate, animated, and wholly realistic. The surroundings are richer, more significant, and the whole in this sense more favorable for artistic rendering.
Hence let us hope that the artists who competed this year will also feel challenged to tackle this task as well, just as it is equally our wish that others as well will be enticed to enter.
Every reference work on mythology can supply additional details concerning the story.
2. Achilles’s battle with the rivers, or, if one prefers:
Achilles in danger of being overwhelmed by the enraged rivers.
We chose the former expression to show that we are more interested in seeing a portrayal of the hero himself who resists these colossal natural forces than the hero who fears succumbing to them.
Because this particular theme has several moments in which it can be comprehended, we are urging artists to read the twenty-first song of the Iliad in its entirety. We similarly use this occasion to encourage every artist in contact with us, or is inclined to be, to secure a copy of the translation of Homer by Voss [Homer’s Werke, trans. Johann Heinrich Voss (Altona 1793)], to become accustomed to the language of that translation, and to study these works diligently as the fundamental treasure trove of all art.
The conditions are the same as last year, whereby we do, however, repeat our request that the competition entries arrive before 25 August 1801 if at all possible.
The exhibition will last until Michaelmas. The entries will be returned during the second half of October.
We will be particularly obliged to artists who wish to include information about their place of birth and their age, as well as something about their life and studies.
Finally, in the article “Preise 1801,” Intelligenzblatt of the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1801) 234 (9 December 1801), 1902, Goethe announces the winners of the competition as well as the theme for 1802 (Weimarer Ausgabe 48:28–29, with accompanying [no pagination] reproductions of the two winning entries):
The prize of 30 Ducats announced in the Propyläen this year for the best portrayal the discovery of Achilles among the daughters of Lycomedes and Achilles’s battle with the river gods has again been awarded to Messieurs Nahl from Kassel and Hoffmann from Cologne, to be divided equally.
The theme for next year will be Perseus and Andromeda, a subject that can be depicted both in a concentrated plastic-symbolic fashion as well as in an illustrative-historical fashion with poetical-allegorical expansion amid a larger composition.
A second competition is also being opened in which artists can choose whichever subject they like. These works, too, will be compared according to the fundamental precepts of art, and a prize awarded to the piece fulfilling the most eminent of those artistic conditions.
The overall sum to be awarded is sixty Ducats, which the judges reserve the right to divide according to their assessment.
More details will be provided in the program for this year’s exhibition, a program which along with its accompanying engraving will open the inaugural volume of the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung for 1802.
Weimar, 1 December 1801
Here the engravings of the winning entries from the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1802), frontispiece (top: Nahl; bottom: Hoffmann):
Here Hoffmann’s allegedly unsuccessful rendering of Achilles and the river gods (i.e., it did not win; in fact, no entry won) (Weimar, Stiftung Weimarer Klassik, Museen):