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Bust - The Strong Smell
  • The Strong Smell
    Messerschmidt, Franz Xaver, born 1736 - died 1783
  • Enlarge image

The Strong Smell

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Pressburg (made)
    Bratislava (Bratislava was formerly known as Pressburg., made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1770-June 1781 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Messerschmidt, Franz Xaver, born 1736 - died 1783 (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Metal alloy (lead-tin?)

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased under the Murray Bequest

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 4, case CA3

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was born in Bavaria, and studied with one of his two sculptor uncles before moving to Vienna. Here he had a successful early career, being given several royal commissions for the Austrian court. His work in 1760s included busts and relief portraits characterised by uncompromising realism.

In 1774 Messerschmidt returned to Wiesensteig, his native Bavarian town, and later to Pozsony, at that time the capital of Hungary (Pressburg in German, now Bratislava, Slovakia). He devoted these years to creating a series of ‘character heads’ which were completed by June 1781. This fine example belongs to the third group, of bald-headed figures. The heads illustrate different states of mind or reactions to smell. This example is conceivably the original of ‘intense odour’ but is more likely a variation of ‘strong odour’; a man with eyes closed in the act of smelling an unpleasant odour intently. It has also been suggested that the expression is the result of experiencing pain.

It is thought, from a number of contemporary reports, that Messerschmidt was suffering from psychiatric problems, including hallucinations; and perhaps also from a digestive complaint. Perhaps as a distraction, he pinched himself in front of a mirror, contorting his face with extreme expressions which he captured in these busts. Whatever his intentions, Messerchmidt’s heads anticipate the interest in psychology and emotional intensity which has interested artists in the following centuries.

The series of heads was greatly admired, and was exhibited during the century after the artist's death until 1889, when it was split up and sold.

Place of Origin

Pressburg (made)
Bratislava (Bratislava was formerly known as Pressburg., made)


ca. 1770-June 1781 (made)


Messerschmidt, Franz Xaver, born 1736 - died 1783 (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Metal alloy (lead-tin?)


Height: 48.9 cm without base, Width: 23 cm, Depth: 32 cm

Object history note

Bought from Mrs M. Burg for £175, using funds from the Murray Bequest, in 1948.

Descriptive line

Character head: Strong Smell, cast metal (lead-tin alloy?) by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, German-Austrian, ca. 1770-1781

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Kris, E. Ein Geisteskranker Bildhauer. Imago. XIX, 1933. vol. 3. pp. 384-411. esp. p. 394. fig. 15.
František Xaver Messerschmidt, 1736-1783. Bratislava, 1983.
Ziegler, W., ed. Johann Baptist Straub - Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: Bildhauer aus Wiesenteig. Weissenhorn, 1984.
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: Character-heads 1770-1783. Catalogue of the exhibition held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. London, 1987. p. 33.
Trusted, Majorie. ed. The Making of Sculpture: the Materials and Techniques of European Sculpture. London: V&A Publications, 2007. p. 71. pl. III.
Miriam Szöcs, ‘Intrigue or Insanity? The Case of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’ in Sculpture Journal Volume 20.1 (2011) pp55-70
Wardropper, Ian, European Sculpture 1400-1900 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2011, p.186-189, re related character head and context
Pötzl-Malikova, Maria and Scherf, Guilhem (eds), Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783, from Neoclassicism to Expressionism (catalogue re ‘Character Heads’ exhibition, 2010-2011), pp.180-183
Krapf, Michael (ed.), Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1736-1783, Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz, 2003

Labels and date

Character study: ‘Strong Smell’
About 1770–81

The sculptor Messerschmidt created a series of character heads illustrating different states of mind and sensory reactions. His interest in extreme expressions might have been caused by the psychiatric disorders from which he suffered, and perhaps also by a painful digestive condition. His character heads are early explorations of the intense psychological and emotional states that fascinated later artists.

Germany (Pressburg),
now Slovakia (Bratislava)
By Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Lead-tin alloy
Purchased with funds from the Captain H.B. Murray Bequest

The Encyclopédie, Vol. 11, 1765:

‘Smell: sense destined by Nature to receive and distinguish odours. Smell seems however less of an individual sense than part of taste, for which it is the sentinel. Everyone knows that the inside of the nose is the organ of smell, but few know the artifice with which this interior is constructed to receive this sensation.’ [09/12/2015]
THE STRONG SMELL (character study)
Austrian; 1775-83
By Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (b. 1736; d.1783)
Purchased under the Murray Bequest

This is one of a series of 69 heads which Messerschmidt made to illustrate different human emotions and characters, as revealed by facial expressions. The series was greatly admired, and was exhibited together during the century after the artist’s death, until 1889 when it was split up and sold.
[1993 - 2011]


Subjects depicted





Sculpture Collection

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