Of great historical importance – the earliest known portrait of Friedrich von Gentz, one of the central figures of the Vienna Conference of 1814-1815.
This large, unsigned early 19th Century portrait depicts a man in his forties, seated at a table which is covered with newspapers from across the Habsburg Empire: the Lembacher Zeitung, Pressburger Zeitung, Wiener Zeitung and issue no.42 of the Klagenfurter Zeitung, featuring the partial date of “19th… 1813”, along a letter from the Emperor authorizing an honorarium of 2,000 guilders. These details are all clues as to the identity of the subject of the portrait.
An analysis of the painting clearly shows that the subject is Friedrich von Gentz, the highly consequential Austrian writer, statesman, journalist and the right hand man of Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein, who served as both the foreign minister and later as the First State Chancellor of the Austrian Empire.
Friedrich von Gentz was born in 1764 to a middle class Prussian family in Breslau, Prussian Silesia (today Wrocław, Poland). After studies in Berlin and Königsberg, he entered the civil service of the Prussian Court. His fierce intelligence and superlative writing skills soon compensated for his modest background, and he was appointed to the rank of councillor for war.
Gentz became internationally known for his publications during and after the French Revolution. In 1799, he founded the Historisches Journal, based on well-regarded English media models. From 1801, he published insightful political essays in the Beiträge zur Geschichte. His writing highly impressed English and Austrian politicians, yet his opinionated viewpoints were less appreciated in the highly censored environment of Prussia.
In 1802, Gentz left for Vienna where he took up writing for the Austrian government. While his work was technically propaganda, his meticulous research, attention to detail and fluid prose added great credibility to the official line. Within a couple of years he became an irreplaceable consigliore to the Habsburg regime. In particular, Gentz produced innumerable witty invectives against Napoleon Bonaparte. His work did not escape the attention of the French emperor, who described Gentz as a “wretched scribe … one of those men without honour who sell themselves for money”. In 1809, Gentz wrote the draft for the official Austrian proclamation declaring war on France.
In 1812, when Klemens von Metternich was appointed Austrian Foreign Minister, Gentz was immediately selected to be his executive assistant, secretary and his ‘ghost writer’. In 1813, Gentz was named a ‘Hofrath’, a court advisor, an unusual honour for a foreigner of modest background.
In 1814, Metternich appointed Gentz to become the Secretary of the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), the conference that was convened by all of the major European powers to bring the Napoleonic Wars to a close. With this, he became the orchestrator of what was one of the most consequential diplomatic events in history. For the remainder of his life, Gentz accompanied the brilliant, yet mischievous, Metternich to all of the important conferences in Europe, and in his own right he became one of the most powerful and respected figures of the Habsburg Empire.
Evidence strongly suggests that Gentz sat for the present portrait while he was stationed in Prague, during the second-half of 1813. Gentz was in the city to attend the peace conference, held between July 12 and August 10, 1813, convened in an effort to avoid a renewal of the conflict between France and Austria. The deliberations were not successful and Austria declared war upon France on August 12, 1813. Gentz elected to remain in Prague for some months in order to be nearer to the military action, which was largely playing out in what is now eastern Germany. This renewal of the conflict ended with Napoleon’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Leipzig on October 19, 1813.
During this period, Gentz became immersed in high-level geopolitics, and was delegated tremendous authority by the over-taxed Metternich. He represented Austria at meetings with foreign ministers and was placed in charge of overseeing Austria’s wartime censorship and media strategy.
In Prague, Gentz founded what amounted to a de facto Propaganda Ministry (Golo Mann, Friedrich von Gentz (Taschen, 2011), p. 242). He became the primary official source for all war news throughout the Austrian Empire, and he personally controlled how and when the news was to be reported. Specifically, he wrote articles announcing momentous events in newspapers, such as a report on September 13, 1813 describing the Battle at Pirna and, most notably, he announced the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig on October 19, 1813. The relevant issue of the Lemberger Zeitung, from October 21, 1813, notes that the war news emanated from Prague (and by implication from Friederich von Gentz). Gentz also personally redacted the Prager Zeitung.
Gentz commented “My assignment in Prague was one of the most pleasant and interesting ones, one can think of. I was now the middleman for all the most important political connections between Vienna and the main quarters, the channel of the authentic news… The Emperor gave me a title of court councellor. I received this news on 12th September with a present of 2,000 guilders” (Meine Bestimmung in Prag war eine der angenehmsten und interessantesten, die sich denken läßt… Tagebücher von Friedrich von Gentz. Mit einem Vor- und Nachwort von K.A. Varnhagen von Ense. Aus dem Nachlass Varnhagen’s von Ense, 1861, p. 274). Gentz noted that he left Prague on December 5, 1813, “where I spent four of the most beautiful months of my life” (Tagebücher, p. 297).
In this context, it would be safe to date the portrait from the autumn of 1813, when Gentz was in Prague. The inclusion of key documents in the painting that specifically relate to Gentz closes the circle. Most notable is the appearance of the imperial warrant for the grant of 2,000 guilders to Gentz, which he received on September 12, 1813. Also, the newspaper bearing the incomplete date of 19th… 1813, clearly refers to 19th October 1813, the day of Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig, an event announced to the people of the Habsburg Empire by Gentz through the medium of the depicted newspapers.
Gentz’s appearance in the present portrait bears an unmistakable resemblance to his likeness in the surviving portraits where he is the confirmed subject. Gentz’s distinct physical features, such as his thick, dark curly hair, free of grey tones, his curled mouth and his dimpled chin, are identical to the other known portrayals. All of the other known portraits of Gentz depict him while he was in his fifties and sixties, making this portrait the earliest known impression of him. Gentz was 49 years old during the second half of 1813, and was frequently described as having a youthful appearance, even well into middle age, which accords with the present depiction. We can therefore confidently assume that the portrait was commissioned in Prague in the autumn of 1813 by Gentz, proud of his achievements, his new position in society and the honour granted him by the Emperor’s letter.