Richard Hoover: Antique miniatures tell a tale

These miniatures depict the tale of Werther and Charlotte from "The Sorrows of Young Werther," a 1774 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Courtesy photo

Take this pair of undetected miniatures. Unidentified by the oblivious auction house that offered them, they were auctioned off separately, not even in consecutive lots, after having been together for more than 200 years!

(By the gods, any civilization that criminalizes human abuse ought to apply hard penalties to the thoughtless handlers of what is old and venerable! Oh, for a Federal Bureau of Antiques to hunt them down! But, I digress).

In the first image, a distressed young man named Werther has just finished a letter to Charlotte. His left hand holds the pink ribbon that Charlotte had worn when they first met. His right holds a cocked flintlock pistol. The second image depicts a sorrowing Charlotte standing before a funeral monument inscribed Werter. (Note the misspelling, an indication that our pictures are based on French or English late 18th century translations from the German). She holds what appears to be a funerary offering, whether some black floral arrangement or a container emitting sacred smoke.

Bingo! Before the auction hammer fell twice, what little I know kicked in, thanks in large part to Dr. Buford S. Stephenson and the German literature course he taught at W&L over half a century ago!

Our two miniatures track the denouement of “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the 1774 novel by 24-year old German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It became part of the very foundation of the Romantic movement that would shape much of art and literature well into 19th century Europe (although Goethe himself would eventually move toward more classical forms and content).

Richard Hoover

“The Sorrows” sparked a rebellion against established Enlightenment norms. It held that reason and natural law could never encapsulate the complex behavior of human beings. Rather, human nature is passionate, chaotic and given to wild extremes. Such was the case of poor Werther, who was driven not by his brain, but by his heart!

The poster boy for cardiac torture, Werther is enamored of the beautiful Charlotte. Her demeanor, at once innocent, lofty and come-hither, puts him straight through the emotional wringers: “What a torment it is to see so much loveliness passing and repassing … and yet I not dare to lay hold of it!”

Of course, Werther’s agony only intensifies with Charlotte’s marriage to Albert! Knowing that he can neither have her nor forget her, and offering death as a mere token, Werther writes Charlotte a letter declaring his last act of love and worship. With that, he blows out his brains!

“The Sorrows” not only made Goethe famous, but precipitated similar irrationality and torment throughout Europe, touching off waves of suicides among the young and lovelorn. (Now there’s a comforting perspective: whatever the waves of irrationality sweeping over our own millennials, things have not yet come to that!).

So, although our two miniatures may not represent a missing page from the history of art, they are important cultural statements that mark the ascendancy of the romantic spirit in 18th century Europe. Further, their rather primitive rendering suggests the deep cultural impact that “The Sorrows” made upon all levels of society. By contrast, I have seen examples displaying old master quality.

Further, still: it would have been truly horrible if, after two hundred-plus years, Werther and Charlotte had been separated forever by their sale to two different bidders!

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.