Faces of Madness: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s Heads

In the eighteenth century, a prominent Viennese sculptor called Franz Xaver Messerschmidt abandoned his career in order to create a series of shocking works.

Feb 1, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

franz xaver messerschmidt heads


Franz Xaver Messerschmidt became known as an outcast artist who created dozens of weird self-portraits. While living in exile in present-day Bratislava, he sculpted his face over and over again with strange grimaces distorting it. Sometimes his faces were funny, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes straight-up horrifying. For years, Messerschmidt was believed to be the victim of the merciless and competitive art scene of Vienna, who lost his mind because of the pressure. But was he really insane and tormented by evil spirits?


Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: Early Works and Initial Success

messerschmidt maria theresa sculpture
Maria Theresa by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1760. Source: Belvedere Museum, Vienna


Despite his present-day reputation, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt became initially known as a conventionally skilled and talented sculptor of his age. His uncle was a court sculptor in Munich, who introduced him to art and taught him the basics. After attending the Art Academy in Vienna, Messerschmidt quickly earned the attention of the most influential wealthy clients. They valued him for the balanced decorativeness of his work, usually made out of metal or stone. Messerschmidt even became one of the leading artists of the Royal Court, with his skills being in high demand even outside of Austria. Messerschmidt worked in the era when excessive, ornate, and rich Rococo style dominated. His conventional works offered a more serious and balanced alternative, produced under the influence of Neoclassical art.


Although his rise to fame was quick, it was not meant to last. With every achievement, Messerschmidt’s anxiety grew. His behavior started to change. Messerschmidt was never the most socially adapted person at the academy, but his threats to kill another artist over a trivial dispute were out of character. He wanted to become a professor at the same Viennese Art Academy he attended as a student, but he was rejected based on his confusion in the head. This rejection was the final blow to Messerschmidt. Convinced that the entire Academy schemed against him, he left Vienna and settled in Pressburg, present-day Bratislava. Although he lived on the outskirts, he was not entirely isolated since his brother, also a sculptor, worked there.


The Character Heads 

franz xaver messerschmidt hypochondriac sculpture
A Hypochondriac by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1771-83. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


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Pressburg era became a defining and highly mythologized period of Messerschmidt’s career. For the Viennese public, no information about the artist’s well-being and career was available until 1781. That year, a friend of Messerschmidt, German writer Friedrich Nicolai visited his small house which doubled as a studio.


There, Nicolai described a tiny and empty house of a lonely man, with his only possessions being an old Italian book on proportion in art and a drawing of an Egyptian statue pinned to a wall. The artist’s only company was himself, or, to be precise, his dozens of self-portraits, each one featuring disturbing and grotesque facial features. Some of these faces squinted so hard their faces turned into clusters of wrinkles, some stretched their lips like beaks, and some froze silent amid the most terrifying scream. He called them his Character Heads, and, according to Nicolai, they had a deeply disturbing meaning behind them.


The Spirit of Proportion

messerschmidt beaked sculpture
Beaked Head by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1771-83. Source: Arthive


Nicolai’s account of the visit revealed Messerschmidt’s greatest fear and terror. The artist claimed he studied occult works to excel in his art and got so good at it, that his mastery angered the Spirit of Proportion. Every night the Spirit came to Messerschmidt and tortured him as a punishment for his knowledge. While Messerschmidt created his sculptures, he felt intense pain in those parts of his own head that corresponded to the area of a sculpture he was working on.


According to Nicolai, the reason behind the collection of heads was mostly ritualistic. Messerschmidt intended to create sixty-six busts that would ward off the evil spirit, two of which, called the Beaked Heads, were the direct representations of the Spirit itself. The rest of the busts represented animalistic senses incarnated in human flesh. To achieve the desired grotesque effect, Messerschmidt would pinch himself or inflict pain in other ways while looking in a mirror.


Whatever the artist’s plan was, he did not live long enough to finish the project, leaving around 60 sculptures behind, of which only 49 survived. Messerschmidt never named them or offered any kind of explanation directly. The individual titles under which the busts are known today came from an anonymous article published ten years after the artist’s death.


The Science Behind the Images

franz xaver messerschmidt vexed man sculpture
The Vexed Man by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1771-83. Source: Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Although Messerschmidt’s works defy our expectations of eighteenth-century art, his ideas have probably sprouted out of existing intellectual and quasi-scientific concepts of his time. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was a friend of Franz Anton Mesmer who was a doctor and theoretician. Mesmer’s main body of work was a theory called Mesmerism. According to Mesmer, health was a stream of energy running through a person’s body, while illness was an obstacle on its way. During his seances, he claimed to use his animal magnetism to channel the flow in the right direction. His patients often had convulsions, with their bodies and faces distorted in a manner similar to that on Messerschmidt’s busts.


Some historians relate Messerschmidt’s experiments to the recently developed pseudo-science of physiognomy. The new discipline suggested that a person’s facial features were the expressions of their character and inclinations. Physiognomy was an inherently racist theory that recognized non-European faces as prone to crime, mental illnesses, and antisocial behavior. Still, in Messerschmidt’s time, this was a popular belief, and the theory might have impacted his work. From the physiognomical lens, Messerschmidt’s Character Heads could be seen as a deep study of human emotions leaving marks on their faces and, consequently, on personalities.


Medical Explanation

franz xaver messerschmidt yawner sculpture
The Yawner by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1771-83. Source: Fine Arts Museum, Budapest


Over the years, historians and medical professionals speculated on the nature of Messerschmidt’s alleged disease. The most popular answer was schizophrenia, which would explain his violent outbursts and hallucinations. Moreover, some psychiatrists believe that the contortions of Messerschmidt’s Character Heads were typical for a neurological condition called dystonia. Dystonia often occurs in schizophrenic patients and manifests itself in violent and unnatural muscle contractions that cause pain and discomfort.


Other versions explaining Messerschmidt’s condition included lead poisoning, a disease widespread among artists of all generations, from Caravaggio to Van Gogh. Prolonged exposure to heavy metals contained in paint and other artistic materials at the time could provoke aggression and delusions. Caravaggio was notably messy with his materials and probably left some of them on his skin and garments. Vincent van Gogh even licked his brushes while painting, literally consuming lead-based paint. As for Messerschmidt’s reported stomach pains, some doctors believe they came from Crohn’s disease, chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract that may provoke pains severe enough to cause hallucinations.


The Truth Behind the Character Heads: Was Messerschmidt Mad?

franz xaver messerschmidt weeping sculpture
Childish Weeping by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1771-83. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest


Perhaps, Messerschmidt was not paranoid after all. Some contemporaries of Messerschmidt remembered the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts as a buzzing place full of intrigues and conspiracies. Moreover, present-day art historians call to re-examine the whole narrative of Messerschmidt’s insanity. Recent research on Messerschmidt’s oeuvre suggests that he started working on the Character Heads while still in Vienna when he was still in the high regard of local art patrons. Moreover, he was still working on private commissions while living in Bratislava.


Upon further research, art historians concluded that the largest part of the story of Messerdschmidt and his alleged insanity might be fictitious after all. Most of the information concerning Messeschmidt’s madness and recluse relied on the account of Friedrich Nicolai, who most likely added extra details and exaggerations to make the story seem more compelling. And it worked. In 1793, a decade after Messerschmidt’s death, an exhibition of Character Heads, followed by an anonymous article about the artist’s tormented life, took place in Vienna. Although the show was more of a cabinet of curiosities type of thing than a proper display of art, the exhibition catalog was sold out immediately.


Yet, if the heads were not products of Messerschmidt’s delusional mind, what could be the true motive for their creation? Some art historians suggest that the project might have had an educational purpose as an extensive study of human emotions and expressions. Perhaps, Messerschmidt meant to use it in the Viennese Art Academy, to which he was never appointed.


Posthumous fame of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

messerschmidt hypocrite sculpture
A Hypocrite and a Slanderer by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1771-83. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Franz Xaver Messerschmidt died in 1783. In his obituaries, Viennese newspapers politely omitted his late preoccupation with distorted self-portraiture while still mentioning his troubled mental state. For the next century, his story would be reduced to Nicolai’s semi-fictional account of spirits and hallucinations. Messerschmidt’s work would be brought back on stage a century later when the Viennese art collector and the patron of Gustav Klimt Berta Zuckerkandl bought two of Messerschmidt’s Character Heads. Zuckerkandl’s collection helped shape generations of Austrian artists, including the Expressionist Oskar Kokoshka, who cited the Character Heads in his practice.  The psychological intensity of the busts also left its mark on the works of Egon Schiele. Moreover, the beginning of the twentieth century saw the rise of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, with Messerschmidt’s work and the legend around it immediately becoming a fascinating case study.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.