The Life and Works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Portrait by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1787

On August 28, 1749 the great German author, philosopher, natural scientist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of five children, son of Catharina Elisabeth and Johann Caspar. He was educated by his father, who owned numerous art collections and more than 2000 books. To satisfy him, Goethe began studying law in Leipzig and meanwhile increased his interest in art and architecture. Adam Friedrich Oeser counts as one of his direct influences, he gave him drawing lessons and introduced him to the works of Joachim Winckelmann. At the age of 18, he was able to publish his first work, ‘Annette‘, a collection of 19 poems dedicated to his girlfriend Anna Katharina Schönkopf. Due to a serious illness, he moved back to Frankfurt in the following year, started to focus on religion and during this period, his famous poems about the moon were written. In 1770 he continued his law studies in Strasbourg and earned his doctoral degree, but could never receive it due to the accusation of heresy in his dissertation.

Even though Goethe opened his own lawyer office, he composed the drama ‘Götz von Berlichigen‘, which was seen as a revolution of the classicism and the foundation of a new era, the ‘Storm and Drive’. This era is strongly influenced by Goethe, who published many works, such as ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther‘, a very successful piece due to the recipient’s possibility to identify themselves with the protagonist easily. ‘Prometheus‘ was published in this period as well as ‘Stella‘ or ‘Clavigo‘, his first contemporary theater piece. It was also the era of Storm and Drive in which he published numerous poems, like ‘Ob ich dich liebe, weiß ich nicht‘ from 1770.
(In German language)

Ob ich dich liebe, weiß ich nicht.
Seh ich nur einmal dein Gesicht,
Seh dir ins Auge nur einmal,
Frei wird mein Herz von aller Qual.
Gott weiß, wie mir so wohl geschicht!
Ob ich dich liebe, weiß ich nicht.

In the middle of the 1770’s, Goethe began his political career, which influenced his literature. Also he started researching on natural sciences, he published works on color theory, which is now seen as his most important work and owned a great amount of minerals as well as rock samples. He was even head of the zoological and paleontological department at the Univerity of Jena and even today there are still samples in the Phyletic Museum left from this period.

In the 1780’s, Goethe left Weimar for Italy and after coming back he finally quit his political duties to devote himself completely to poetry and natural sciences. In 1794 he got to know Friedrich Schiller, who counts as one of his greatest influences. They began working together and depict the main figures of the ‘Weimar Classicism‘. During these years he could publish the famous poem ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice‘ or ‘Roman Elegies‘. But with the passing of Friedrich Schiller, the Weimar Classicism came to an end and Goethe then began focusing more on romantic or classical works. Goethe dedicated this later life primarily to literature and passed away in 1832 in Weimar.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has influenced society in a variety of aspects. He could make great contribution to the theory of colors (although he disapproved Isaac Newton violently) and in natural science in general. His remarkable efforts in writing have influenced philosophers like Schopenhauer or Hegel and were set to music by composers like Mozart or Mahler.

At Yovisto, you can enjoy a lecture by Prof. Dr. Albert Meier from the University of Kiel talking about the education novel, a popular genre in the 18th century. In detail he discusses ‘Die Geschichte des Agathon’ as well as ‘Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre’ (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) from 1795/96.
(In German Language)

References and Further Reading:

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