Letter 230e

230e. Henriette Mendelssohn to Dorothea Veit in Berlin: Dresden, 19 April 1799 [*]

[Friday] 19 [April 1799]

Charlotte is a magnificent, truly singular person; Schlegel told us much too little about her. She is an animated, amiable spirit and speaks quite sensibly and wittily. Her eyes she has from Friedrich, the rest of her features from Wilhelm. The tone of her language and the way she expresses herself is an equal mixture of them both. I am uncommonly pleased with her, as you doubtless are as well. She is planning to come to Jena in the autumn, that is, if she will find you there as well. She is firmly counting on it.

You will hear from Vienna about everything I otherwise did in these two days here in Dresden. My Italian is leaving me no time, we now have just an hour left before our departure, and I still want to go visit Charlotte and go to the gallery with her. Anyone who dies without having seen this gallery has not really lived at all. And so what have I seen? Of the two days I was here, one was Sunday, when I was unable to go, and so I was only able to visit twice on Saturday, not enough time to become truly acquainted with even a single piece when one is as little informed as I. [1] Today I am going solely to see Abraham by Andrea del Sarto, which escaped me, and to take my leave of the landscapes and Amor. [2]

Let me quickly tell you one more thing. I am traveling with an Italian merchant who speaks very little German. And that I might slip by the Jews and Saxons here, I had them identify me at the town gate as his sister. [3] When we then went to the gallery, I signed in as such, but then imagine my horror when the inspector began to speak Italian with us! I played my role quite well, so much so that the old man related all sorts of things about me to Madam Ernst. It was admittedly not all that difficult in this brother’s company, who had as much sense for these wondrous things as my shoe! He also referred to me as a filosofa because I am so pleased with it all. He sings during the journey, or blows on his postal horn, which he bought especially for the occasion. [4]

I am assuming you wrote me in Jena, and that Wilhelm will forward your letters to me in Vienna. I still have not seen a single line from you.

Although I want to wait till I am in Vienna to write you calmly, Hardenberg electrified me. He sends his regrets for not having written, but does send his warmest regards to Schlegel. As do I. His Hardenberg and his Charlotte are divine. I told Hardenberg he would be coming to Jena this summer, which delighted him. Stay well! What is Philipp doing? Just please write. Adieu!



[*] Source: Dreihundert Briefe 1:2:175–77; reprinted in KFSA 24:273–74. — Concerning the background to this letter, see the editorial note to Henriette’s letter to Dorothea on 16 April 1799 (letter 230c) (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795]):



[1] This chronology is difficult to reconcile. Henriette wrote Dorothea from Leipzig on 16 April 1799 (letter 230c), which in 1799 fell on a Tuesday. She then wrote Dorothea from Dresden on 18 April (letter 230d), which in 1799 fell on a Thursday. This present letter was similarly written from Dresden (although no place is indicated in Holtei), this time on 19 April, which in 1799 fell on a Friday, and, moreover, on the day — as Henriette herself indicates — she was to leave for Vienna.

That is, she must have been in Dresden and visited the gallery the previous weekend (she accordingly uses the past tense, “Of the two days I was here” [earlier?]), namely, on Saturday and Sunday, 13—14 April 1799. And yet in this letter she speaks of “these two days here in Dresden.”

On 16 April (letter 230c), in Leipzig, she says she had been told to prepare for her journey to Vienna on 18 April. Though she does not indicate the place of departure (Leipzig or Dresden), she mentions that “I cannot go to Dresden because I cannot even find anyone here to accompany me even as far as the town gates.” Although she did obviously make it to Dresden, where she met both Friedrich von Hardenberg and Charlotte Ernst, she apparently visited the gallery the previous weekend without Charlotte, since in this present letter she mentions how the “old man” (presumably the inspector mentioned in this letter) was able to relate all sorts of things about her to Charlotte, something that seems unlikely had Charlotte already been in the same company.

Henriette seems to have been

in Dresden on Saturday and Sunday, 13 and 14 April 1799, visiting the gallery on Saturday, 14 April 1799;

in Leipzig on Tuesday, 16 April 1799, when, significantly, Wilhelm and Caroline were expecting her in Jena at midday, she apparently being unable to make it (see letter 230c);

then back in Dresden on Thursday and Friday, 18 and 19 April, visiting the gallery again — this time with Charlotte Ernst — on Friday 19 April and leaving afterward from Dresden for Vienna.

If such not be the case, i.e., if she was in Dresden but two days altogether, Holtei may have made an error in dating these letters (the manuscripts are no longer extant). These considerations do not, of course, answer the question concerning when she visited the Schlegels in Jena, though the possibility exists that Henriette was in Jena on 17 April, then journeyed on to Dresden the same day (W. R. Shepherd, Historical Map of Central Europe about 1786 [1926]):



[2] The Amor (Cupid) reference could be to any number of paintings in the gallery at the time. — Andrea del Sarto, Il sacrificio di Isacco (The sacrifice of Abraham) (1529):


The character of Louise, usually Caroline’s voice, describes this painting in “Die Gemählde. Ein Gespräch von W.,” in Athenaeum (1799) 39–151, here 83–86 (this issue of Athenaeum had just appeared in early March 1799):

Among many quite excellent paintings, I find none as pittoresk , and in such a noble way, as Abraham by Andrea del Sarto.

Abraham is standing behind a low sacrificial stone or altar obliquely positioned in the picture. His head is turned upward and back, whence the angel comes. He has extended his right arm, holding the knife, to carry out the sacrifice; he is extending his left arm across his breast and behind his son’s head, whose hands Abraham is holding bound together behind his back just as he is about to let up. He has positioned his left leg one step to the side firmly on the earth, touching the edge of the stone in this direction just beneath his knee. His other leg is partially hidden behind this leg and the boy. He is wearing a violet-gray undergarment whose broad arms have been rolled up, leaving only his hands uncovered. Over this he is wearing a garment of beautiful yellowish red, also cut in a more regular form; it encompasses his back and has broad openings out of which his arms extend, and it folds back at his neck like a collar, closes at his breast, and is gathered up toward the back. The outline of his legs can be seen through the gray clothing; they are naked from the knee down, and his feet in sandals.

The boy is naked. He is kneeling with his left leg on the altar and supporting himself on the ground with his right. He is turning his face toward the front and peering straightaway outward with his fearful eyes. Since the entirety of the action is taking place behind his back, he senses more than he knows. Although his mouth is open wide in terror, and his eyebrows tensed excessively upward at an angle just above his nose, the nobility of his features remains completely discernible. His lower abdomen is drawn in out of fear, though without convulsive cramps; because his hands are behind his back, his comely body is completely visible in the soft shading. His shoulders, pushed forward, express an indescribable charm and melancholy; in this position, his back is positioned a bit over his arm in the forefront, all of which completes, as it were, the expression of mortal fear.

No merely cold, perfect drawing is to be found here, for it has transitioned into the warmth of life itself. Pain and beauty touchingly balance out one the other, and the heavenly boy does not rend our hearts because the messenger from above is already hovering in the air in the form of a saving younger brother, and is even now reaching the father’s ears and eyes.

Abraham has still not understood his words. He gazes upward, as if startled during this work he has undertaken with such strength and despair; a trace of reluctance ennobles his countenance. He has gray hair (almost white on his beard) without being an old man. The most magnificent power of this man comes to expression in his figure, in the tendons of his neck and in the hand holding the knife. His left arm, extending darkly across the red garment, and the other, emerging out of the garment somewhat abbreviated, create an admirable effect, since these two beautiful colors cut each other off without clashing in relief one against the other. Perhaps the only feature that appears less dignified in this powerful figure is the left leg, which is positioned with visible emphasis off to the side of the rest of the figure.

The boy’s body is modestly colored, and kept a bit more in the pale range, as if the innocent blood about to be shed has withdrawn; and yet not at all a stony treatment. The angel fills the small space between Abraham’s head and the upper corner of the picture; it is a winged child bringing good news. Although one might imagine it being larger and more serious, the picturesque contrast profits from the difference between the three figures. The landscape in the background can be viewed as no more than a colorful woodcut.

Andrea del Sarto has presented Abraham as the Laocoön of Christianity. It is not, however, that while drawing Isaac he might have been thinking of Laocoön’s sons, no, but rather according to the idea and spirit. The latter is not this devout Abraham in his flowing garment, who with the love of painful devotion brings his most precious possession as an offering. Faith is powerful within him because he himself is powerful. It is strength that has created this obedience in him. Back.

[3] Henriette, of course, was Jewish, and as such subject to different entry regulations in various towns than were Christians. In this context, see, esp. Friedrich Schlegel’s letter to Schleiermacher on 5 May 1800 (letter 259r), with note 8, and Dorothea’s letter to Schleiermacher on 4 July 1800 (letter 264d), with note 16. Back.

[4] Illustrations: (1) “Abbildung eines blasenden Postillions zu Pferde etc.,” Katalog des Reichs-Postmuseums [Berlin 1897], p. 114, no. 22; (2) Godefroy Engelmann, Voiture à quatre chevaux avec un postillon (ca. 1800–1830; Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon):




Translation © 2013 Doug Stott