In his lifetime Chopin had his portrait painted and drawn by a variety of professional and amateur artists, and judging by the discrepancy in physical characteristics many of these artists must have encountered some difficulty in capturing the composer’s likeness. Chopin had an expressive and extremely mobile face according to contemporary accounts, and could transform his appearance when entertaining friends with his brilliant impersonations. The pianist and composer Moscheles wrote of Chopin in 1839 (in a letter to his wife Charlotte): "He was lively, merry, and extremely comic in his mimicry of Pixis, Liszt, and a hunch-backed pianoforte amateur." In his biography of Chopin, published in 1863, Liszt wrote: "He displayed a rich vein of drollery in pantomime ["il déployait dans la pantomime une verve drôlatique"]. He often amused himself by reproducing the musical formulas and peculiar tricks of certain virtuosi, in the most burlesque and comic improvisations, in imitating their gestures, their movements, in counterfeiting their faces with a talent which instantaneously depicted their whole personality. His own features would then become scarcely recognizable, he could force the strangest metamorphoses upon them, but while mimicking the ugly and grotesque, he never lost his own native grace." Chopin's skill at mimicry was so well known it even appeared in a Balzac novel; in his 1844 novel "Un homme d'affaires" Balzac wrote: "Gifted with the same talent for mimicking absurdities which Chopin the pianist possesses to so high a degree, he proceeded forthwith to represent the character with startling truth."
Descriptions of Chopin’s appearance by those who knew him, including his piano pupils who often saw him on a daily basis, are fascinating in their psychological observations, though they are often short on physical detail. Wilhelm von Lenz, a pupil of Chopin, wrote in 1872, describing his first meeting with Chopin in Paris in October 1842: "Chopin soon came out to me, the card in his hand; a young man of middle height, [Chopin was around 5 foot 7 inches in height], slim [Chopin weighed around 88 pounds, i.e. a little over 6 stone], haggard, with a sad, though very expressive countenance, and elegant Parisian bearing — stood before me. I have seldom, if ever, met with an apparition so entirely engaging." Zofia Zaleska née Rosengardt, another pupil of Chopin, described Chopin in her diary in 1843: "Such noble features so full of expression but so pale, wan and thin that it seemed the smallest breath of wind would topple him over.” The newspaper The Scotsman offered the following description in an anonymous review published 10 October 1848 of Chopin's Edinburgh concert given on 4 October 1848: “The infinite delicacy and finish of his playing, combined with great occasional energy never overdone, is very striking when we contemplate the man — a slender and delicate-looking person, with a marked profile, indicating much intellectual energy.” Georges Mathias, one of Chopin's most gifted pupils, wrote this beautiful description of Chopin in a letter to his pupil Isidor Philipp on 12 February 1897: "I see Chopin resting his back against a chimney place mantelpiece. I see his face, delicate clear cut features, his not very big eyes sparkling, radiant and shimmering, his smile of unspeakable charm... It does not seem that there has ever existed such harmony between the author and his work."
Thankfully three images exist that have preserved for posterity Chopin’s true physical likeness: they are the photographic copies of two now lost daguerreotypes (from c.1845 and c.1847) and a death mask molded by Auguste Clésinger [according to anecdotal evidence it took Clésinger two attempts to obtain an accurate death mask, his first attempt likely failing due to inexperience with the process and undue haste in its creation; the second attempt was successful in as much as its accuracy appears to be confirmed when compared with the photographic images].
On 16 January 2017 the Polish Institute of Paris issued a press release announcing the existence of a possible unpublished photograph of Chopin, recently discovered by "a fine connoisseur of Frédéric Chopin", M. Alain Kohler, a Swiss physicist who in 2015 through a detailed search of Pleyel's archives had been able to track down a Pleyel piano that had once been belonged to Chopin. Given the scarcity of photographic images of Chopin the thought that a third photographic image might exist was very exciting news. However, it is always wise to greet such dramatic announcements with caution and a certain amount of skepticism: in July 2006 a gullible music world was taken in by premature announcements in the press hailing as authentic a photograph said to show the 78-year-old Constanze Mozart. Having long outlived her composer husband, dying in 1842, it was not unreasonable to presume that a photograph of Constanze Mozart could exist, but scholars quickly proved that the image in question (which first appeared with its unusual claim in 1958) could not have been taken until after her death.
Having lived in close proximity to two reproductions of Chopin’s death mask for many years, as well as good reproductions of the 1845 and 1847 daguerreotype copies, all of which adorn my music studio, I was extremely surprised when I first saw the image purported to be of Chopin, announced by the Polish Institute of Paris in January 2017. In my initial reaction I felt it bore little resemblance to the known authentic images of the composer with which I was so familiar (in particular I felt the new image lacked Chopin’s distinctive oval face). At the same time I could clearly see that the image did bear a strong similarity to stereotypical images of the composer, produced in numerous portraits (and in movies) over the years. I could also see an affinity with both the famous unfinished 1838 Delacroix painting of Chopin and with certain details of the c.1847 Louis-Auguste Bisson daguerreotype image of Chopin.
Since an announcement from the Polish Institute of Paris had to be taken seriously, I spent a great deal of time examining the new image, despite my misgivings, carefully comparing it to the Clésinger death mask. To begin with I made careful comparisons between the Clésinger death mask and the previously known c.1845 and c.1847 daguerreotype images, as a sort of control. The match up between the Clésinger death mask and these two images was easily accomplished and extraordinarily convincing: without doubt the c.1845 and c.1847 daguerreotype images and the Clésinger death mask all represent the same person in my view (and an important validation for the c.1845 daguerreotype copy whose authenticity some people still question).
Using the same method, I then compared the Clésinger death mask with the image recently unearthed by Alain Kohler. I made many attempts but could not get the features to match up. It was clear to me that the new image and the death mask had too many differences for them to be representations of the same person.
Out of curiosity I also compared the Clésinger death mask to the 1847 Winterhalter drawing mentioned by Chopin, and the match up was very close, validating Chopin’s own assessment that the Winterhalter drawing was "a very good likeness".
You can also see the comparisons between all these images in this video.
So what is the significance of the similarities between the newly discovered image and the 1838 Delacroix portrait and with certain details in the c.1847 L.A. Bisson daguerreotype image?
The image discovered by Alain Kohler and the 1838 Delacroix portrait match up very closely indeed: the head is positioned at exactly the same angle in both images and when the two images are overlapped the facial features line up almost perfectly. This is strange for two reasons: firstly, we’re comparing a photographic image with a painting; secondly, though Delacroix’s portrait is a fine representation of the passion and nobility of Chopin’s spirit it is more an idealized image of the composer rather than an accurate portrait of the composer’s physical appearance.
Delacroix’s 1849 pencil sketch of Chopin as Dante gives a slightly different representation of Chopin’s physical appearance, which may or may not be closer to reality (certainly this 1849 sketch held great significance to Delacroix, who kept the drawing in his bedroom for the remainder of his life, writing the words "Cher Chopin" beneath the image):
Comparing the newly discovered image with the c.1847 L.A. Bisson daguerreotype image of Chopin, the following similarities stand out:
- both sitters appear to be wearing similar or identical collars and ties
- the hairstyle of both is almost identical, even down to a small curl on the bottom left of the image
- both sitters wear a slightly frowned expression, and with slightly hooded eyelids
- there is a similar wood trim detail in the background of both images
Given these similarities it’s easy to understand why some might be convinced the newly discovered image is a photographic portrait of Chopin, possibly taken by L.A. Bisson in the same session at his Paris studio at 65 rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois that produced the famous Chopin daguerreotype image. But to come to this conclusion one would have to ignore the differences in the physical features of the two sitters. It’s also important to bear in mind that in the L.A. Bisson daguerreotype image Chopin is looking at the camera face on, and so it isn’t possible to assess the true shape of his forehead or nose; without that information the newly discovered image does appear closer in likeness than it actually is.
So what could be the explanation for these similar details? Could this new image perhaps have been created as an “hommage” to Chopin, or perhaps even a deliberate attempt at forgery? I certainly believe it's possible, but I should point out that the Polish Institute's original press release stated that Alain Kohler and his team had examined this possibility and ruled it out, without providing specific details in the press release to substantiate their position. It seems less likely that the similarities are merely coincidences, since certain features of Chopin, such as his hairstyle, are fairly unique to him, so for now there are still many puzzles that have yet to be resolved.
Some other queries regarding the image also need to be addressed. The newly discovered picture appears to have been cropped, which is odd. If it has, what has become of the uncropped image and why would this have been done? Alain Kohler has raised this same concern himself. To date few details have been released regarding the current ownership of the image, the condition and age of the print (e.g. the kind of paper the image is printed on, any information written on the reverse side, etc.), the image's known history and how it came into its present ownership. It would be important to know if the image has ever previously been made public. With a lack of provenance all we are left with in assessing the picture’s authenticity is its appearance, which as I have outlined above, leaves a lot to be desired. In my opinion it is unfortunate that the Polish Institute in Paris issued their press release concerning the image before more efforts at verifying the image's authenticity had been made. In the rumour mill that is today’s internet a mere suggestion that the picture might be Chopin, and might have been taken by L.A. Bisson in 1847, is quickly transformed from suggestion to fact. All such statements regarding the history of the image are at this stage, pure conjecture. It is for this reason that I felt it important to issue my own statement on the image.
In conclusion, based on my own painstaking comparisons between the image discovered by Alain Kohler and announced to the world by the Polish Institute of Paris on 16 January 2017 and the known authentic images of the composer, there is little doubt in my mind that the newly discovered image is NOT an authentic photographic portrait of Chopin. Meanwhile I will eagerly await with great interest any new information that is released regarding the image, and how it came into existence.