Social and Epistemic Aspects of Early Modern Author Portraits

Portrait of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing by Johann David Schleuen
(1770). Lessing annotated the engraving with an ironic distich:
„Mich mahlte Simon Klecks so schön, so meisterlich / das aller
Welt, so gut als mir, das Bildnis glich“ (Simon Klecks [i.e. blot]
has painted me that fine and masterly / that this portrait
resembles me as well as everyone else”)
(HAB, Lessingiana 36).

Project in the cluster „Authors Portraits and Iconic Authorization“ in the research network Marbach – Weimar – Wolfenbüttel

Author portraits are common in today’s visual culture. However they are not an invention of photography, in fact their history reaches back to depictions of the Evangelists and the Church Fathers in medieval illuminated manuscripts and to the busts of philosophers in Antiquity. But it was not until the increasing expansion of the book market from the 16th century onwards that the author portrait became a prominent phenomenon of civil society.

Taking this historical starting point my research project investigates the conditions and expectations connected to this kind of image. What return did the publishers and authors who financed the production of the portraits anticipate? What kind of material and symbolic culture constituted the transformation of a person’s face in a sort of paratext? What were the alternatives to iconic representations of authors and what was their theoretical background? Not least: of what importance were author portraits for the development and establishment of the modern concept of authorship?

Particular attention will be paid to the special practices and ways of seeing. What can characteristics of early modern image practices tell us about how they were perceived? How did author portraits influence the reading and the public perception of an author? Why and to what extent were author portraits extracted from books, collected, combined with autographs or presented as objects of art? Of particular interest is whether changes in the way portraits were understood in turn affected their design. Responding to these questions requires research into the production and perception of author portraits in the context of social history, history of knowledge and visual culture.


Project information:


Funding: Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung im Rahmen des MWW-Verbundes
Duration: May 2014 – August 2018
Researcher: Dr. Hole Rößler, Lisa Romahn (stud. Hilfskraft)
Digital Humanities Support: Timo Steyer
Phone: +49(0)5331-808-202, Fax -277