Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) was popular among the German nobility, for whom he produced numerous portrait busts with extreme facial expressions and monumental statues.
He was a German-Austrian sculptor whose works are located between baroque and classicism. He was most famous for his “character heads”, a collection of busts with faces contorted in extreme facial expressions.
Born in southwestern Germany, in the region of the Swabian alps, Messerschmidt grew up in the Munich home of his uncle Johann Baptist Straub, who became his first master. He spent two years in Graz, in the workshop of his other maternal uncle Philipp Jakob Straub. At the end of 1755 he matriculated at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and became a pupil of Jacob Schletterer. Graduated, he got work at the imperial arms collection. Here, in the building`s salon in 1760-1763 he made his first known works of art, the bronze busts of the imperial couple and reliefs representing the heir of the crown and his wife.
Observing the resulting facial expressions in a mirror, Messerschmidt then set about recording them in marble and bronze.
His intention was to represent the 64 “canonical grimaces” of the human face using himself as a template.
He started out as an academically trained sculptor doing normal portrait commissions. But then the work dried up, he lost his teaching position, and he suffered a mental malady that they called “confusion in the head”.
He also suffered a stressful abdominal problem. When he pinched a rib to distract himself from the pain, he noticed that he winced in interesting ways. He developed an interest in necromancy and the arcane, which further inspired his character heads.
A first sculpture of him that showed first characteristics of a caricature was his sculpture of Gerard van Swietens made around the year 1770. In his late years he left Vienna, went to Munich and Wiesenburg and finally stayed with his brother in Pressburg (today: Bratislava), where he died on August 19, 1783.
The famous character heads were executed in Pressburg. The whole collection includes about 52 different heads, all showing different facial expressions.
The heads are pictures of him, made as self-portrays. They show very different facial expressions, like bizarre ones or distraught expressions. Many people, like Count Kaunitz, thought he was lightly mental disturbed; this was a widely spread point of view, even there was no proof for it.