Feb 12, 2013

A Few Grassi Trifles

The Viennese painter Joseph Mathias Grassi (1757–1838) has recently entered the spotlight owing to a supposed miniature portrait of Mozart that has been attributed to him. Since there have been doubts and uncertainties regarding Joseph Grassi's correct middle name which is incorrectly given as "Maria" in a book, recently published by the Mozarteum in Salzburg, I take the opportunity to present a few primary sources pertaining to Grassi and his family. Although the basic genealogical facts regarding Grassi have been published 50 years ago by Heinz Schöny, art historians seem to have completely ignored this study. This resulted in a painter named Josef "Maria" Grassi entering the world of Wikiality.

Joseph Mathias Grassi: self portrait (private property)

On 11 June 1754 the goldsmith Ottilio Grassi ("Gebürtig zu Utini in Welschland aus den[!] Venitianischen Gebieth") married Antonia Winterhalter (1737–1817), the daughter of the goldsmith Mathias Winterhalter:

The entry concerning the wedding of Joseph Grassi's parents on 11 June 1754 at the Schottenkirche (A-Ws, Tom. 30, fol. 58r)

The entry concerning the baptism of Joseph Grassi's mother Antonia Winterhalter on 18 January 1737 at St. Stephen's Cathedral (A-Wd, Tom. 70, fol. 83v)

Ottilio Valentino Grassi had been born on 10 May 1723 in Udine, son of Valentino Grassi (1680–1762) and his wife Livia. In 1742 Ottilio Grassi began his six-year apprenticeship in Vienna. In 1760 he was appointed master goldsmith and in 1761 he took the oath as "Wiener Bürger" (Viennese Citizen). Schöny gives Ottilio Grassi's date of death as "after 1782". Grassi's appearance in the Steuerfassion (the municipal tax register) shows that he was still alive in 1788.

Ottilio Grassi, listed as tenant of a small apartment on the sixth floor of the house Stadt 1356 (today Himmelpfortgasse 7) (A-Wsa, Steueramt B 34/5, fol. 400)

Ottilio Grassi's first son Anton Mathias was born on 26 June 1755 in the "Blumenthalisches Haus" am Hof (Stadt No. 310, today Am Hof 6a) and baptized in the Schottenkirche with his maternal grandparents officiating as godparents.

The baptismal entry of the sculptor Anton Mathias Grassi (1755-1807)
(A-Ws, Tom. 34, fol. 247v)

Auf dem Hof in 1778 with Anton and Joseph Grassi's birthplace ("Zur kleinen Weintraube" No. 310) on the right

Ottilio Grassi's next child, Joseph Mathias, was born on 22 April 1757 and like his older brother he got his middle name from his grandfather (and godfather), the goldsmith Mathias Winterhalter (1696–1763).

The 1757 baptismal entry of the painter Joseph Mathias Grassi (with his godfather misnamed "Winterhauer"). Note the f in "auf dem Hof" which looks like a double f, but is not (A-Ws, Tom. 34, fol. 334v).

Consequently Ottilio Grassi's two daughters got their middle name from their maternal grandmother Margaretha Winterhalter, née Poser (1715–1775): Elisabetha Margaretha Grassi was born on 29 October 1759 (A-Ws, Tom. 35, fol. 125r) and Eleonora Margaretha on 24 September 1761 (A-Ws, Tom. 35, fol. 240r). The next child of the Grassi family was Johann Gottfried Grassi, born on 12 January 1766 (A-Ws, Tom. 36, fol. 156r), who was named after his godfather, the K.K. Hof Cammer Registraturs Adjunct Johann Gottfried Anhalt (who in 1754 had been Ottilio Grassi's best man). The last child of the Grassi family was born on 7 April 1769 (A-Wd, Tom. 88, fol. 73v) and christened Johann Christoph after his godfather, the K.K. Hofkammer Concipist Christoph von Keßler. Keßler was a legendary freemason who in 1782 seems to have been responsible for Joseph and Anton Grassi joining the Viennese Masonic lodge "Zur Beständigkeit". Ottilio Grassi died on 1 April 1791 in Vienna, and on 3 April was buried in the St. Marx cemetery (A-Wd, Bahrleibuch 1791, fol. 104r).

The seal of the Masonic lodge "Zur Beständigkeit" (which was disbanded in 1785) with its motto "STAT TIRMITER"

Joseph Mathias Grassi left Vienna after he was denied a travel grant which was given to Heinrich Füger. But since Füger already went to Rome in 1776, while Grassi still remained in Vienna, something seems to be amiss in this chronology of events. Either Grassi went to Poland much earlier, or his departure had nothing to do with Füger. Grassi did not leave Vienna in 1790 – as is stated in the literature – but already in 1785. The earliest source for Grassi's stay abroad is a letter he wrote on 3 January 1786 from Annopol to his close friend and fellow mason Franz Xaver Brabbée (1758–1831). From this letter (A-Wst, I.N. 68608) we not only learn that Grassi had just fallen in love with a blue-eyed girl, but also that at that time he had already been in Poland for at least four months. Being a fervent freemason, Grassi in his letters to a fellow mason  used the masonic date "ab anno lucis":

The date "30 April 1787" written by Grassi in masonic code (A-Wst, I.N. 51693)

It seems that by leaving Vienna, Grassi fared much better than most Austrian painters of his time. In addition to his income as a freelance portraitist, by 1805 he already drew an annual income of 2,400 Thaler (which the Neuer Nekrolog der Deutschen in 1840 was to call "Westengeld") from Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg whose poetry Grassi also used as subjects for a number of paintings. The villa in the Plauenscher Grund in Dresden that Grassi bought at that time was unfortunately destroyed in 1857.

The "Villa Grassi" near Dresden (which had to make way for the now defunct Felsenkeller Brauerei)

The "Gothaischer Geheimer Legations-Rath" Joseph Grassi, who after he had been awarded the title "Ritter des Königlich Sächsischen Civil-Verdienst-Ordens" always called himself "von Grassi", died a wealthy man on 7 January 1838 at his home at Moritzstraße 752 in Dresden. His grave on the Old Catholic Cemetery is not preserved. Since his work mostly consisted of miniature portraits of members of the nobility and other wealthy citizens most of his paintings are in private ownership today and can rarely be seen in exhibitions. This public underrepresentation of his artistic oeuvre seems to be the main reason that weak and technically flawed pieces of work, such as the *not really new* supposed Mozart portrait are being attributed to this great artist.

© Dr. Michael Lorenz 2013

Updated: 10 August 2020


  1. Wonderful post, as usual. Also a wonderful example of why this sort of material is so much more effective in electronic presentation than in a traditional print journal, which would take months and would have lousy images.

  2. It is common sense that Joseph Mathias Grassi (1757-1838), who had curly hair and who would have been 75 years old in 1832, is not the same person as the young fellow with straight hair identified as Joseph "Maria" Grassi in the lithograph by Han.

  3. Of course it's common sense. And because I had curly hair 40 years ago - which I don't have today - I'm now somebody else ;) The dating of the engraving with "1832" is *not* verified and just like the name "Josef Maria" seems to have originated with the Dresden curators. It's also *common sense* that the sitter used some kind of Pomade to cover his partial baldness with his remaining hair.

  4. The portrait looks like F. X. Mozart.

  5. Thank you for the interesting post. I am trying to learn more about Josef Grassi's career. Can you tell me where his January 1786 letter to Brabbée is located? Is it discussed in any publications? Do you know of other letters from Grassi in Poland in the 1780s? Thanks for your help.