American images of beethoven


A thick square face with heavy eyebrows, long hair out of control, and a deep scowl, Beethoven’s image is almost as familiar as da-da-da-dum. His bust had become omnipresent in American culture, accruing the same universal recognition accorded figures such as George Washington or Jesus. One need not be a musician or classical music buff to recognize Beethoven’s image any more than one has to be a Christian to recognize Warner Sallman’s famous painting of “The Head of Christ,” or an American citizen to recognize Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” While many of the Beethoven images deserve the same criticism as Sallman’s portrayal of Jesus (that they belong to the “velvet Elvis” tradition), their importance lies not in historical fidelity but rather the degree to which they have permeated American culture. Beethoven may not be a religious figure—although some writers have tried to deify him—but he is an icon as well as the subject of myth and veneration. 

By the late twentieth century, Beethoven seemed to be everywhere, far beyond the traditional classical music locus, as if he were singlehandedly defying the many laments about the death of classical music much as he had defied the aristocracy of early nineteenth-century Vienna. 

In addition to the ubiquitous bust that sits on so many pianos and pedestals in music rooms, Beethoven’s image has inspired many painters, sculptors, and graphic artists of all stripes. As seen here, renditions range from the Romantic to the postmodern to the stylized. Almost all, however, depend upon recognition of that now familiar face, hair, and scowl. This is the image of Beethoven in his last decade, however, the composer of the Ninth Symphony, the Missa solemnis, and the late string quartets. —Michael Broyles


Beethoven (1987) by Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Poster reprint of an art work in synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen on canvas; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, c1992; Published in New York by the Neues Publishing Co. and in Düsseldorf by Achenbach Art Edition; Gift of Thomas Wendel

Beethoven by N.C. Wyeth
Color reproduction in The Steinway Collection of Paintings by American artists, Together with Prose Portraits of the Great Composers, by James Huneker (New York: Steinway & Sons, 1919).

Von Beethoven by Tomas Belsky (1938- )
Printed in Hilo, Hawaii

The Etude Music Magazine
Covers with Beethoven’s image
February 1909, February 1914, June 1915, October 1926