Dorothea von Schlegel  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Dorothea von Schlegel (née Brendel Mendelssohn) (October 24 1764 - August 3 1839) was a German novelist and translator, best known for her relationship and subsequent marriage with Friedrich von Schlegel.



Dorothea von Schlegel was born in 1764 in Berlin[1]. Oldest daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a leading figure in the German Enlightenment (Aufklarung). She married the merchant and banker Simon Veit in 1783. Their son, Philipp Veit, would later become part of a circle of German Christian painters called "the Nazarenes," who influenced the later English painters in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She met the poet and critic Friedrich von Schlegel in the salon of her friend Henriette Herz, after which she left her husband. They were divorced in 1799.

She obtained custody of her younger son, Phillip, and lived with him at the Ziegelstraße, which became a salon frequented by Tieck, Schelling, the Schlegel brothers, and Novalis.

Schlegel's novel "Lucinde" (1799) was seen as an account of their affair, causing a scandal in German literary circles. In 1801 her novel "Florentin" was published anonymously by Schlegel. They lived in Paris from 1802 until 1804, and after her divorce they married as Protestants. In 1807 she translated "Corinne" by Madame de Staël from the French.

In 1808, Friedrich and Dorothea converted to Catholicism. (She may have adopted the name "Dorothea" from a 17th century Dorothea von Schlegel who composed Catholic hymns). They continued to visit the salons of Rahel Levin and Henriette Herz, as well as the constellation which surrounded Madame de Staël. Friedrich died in 1829, after which she moved to Frankfurt am Main. There, she lived with her son Philipp (also a convert to a medieval style of Catholicism) until her death in 1839.

Her importance in cultural history

Since she was the daughter of the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment - Moses Mendelssohn - (of equal stature with Immanuel Kant, and translator of John Locke and Alexander Pope, as well as Hebrew scriptures into German), Dorothea was surrounded throughout her life by the leading poets, critics, musicians, novelists, and philosophers of Europe. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was her father's closest friend and colleague, and the Emancipation and secularization of the Jews and Jewish culture was a direct outcome of their work. (Mendelssohn was the model for Nathan der Weise in Lessing's play of the same name.) Friedrich the Great was Lessing's patron, and he extended royal protection and sponsorship to Mendelssohn, as well. Dorothea's brother, Joseph, was a friend and sponsor of Alexander von Humboldt, the great naturalist and ethnologist. Her nephew was Felix Mendelssohn, the composer, who with his sister, Fanny, were considered nearly the equals of the Mozarts as child prodigies.

To fully appreciate the importance of this cultural scene, see the entries for Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich Schlegel, Germaine de Staël, Felix Mendelssohn, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, and others. Dorothea was the common link or nexus among them all.

Most of her work, letters, biographies, etc. seem to be available only in German. And there, with the legacy of the Holocaust, she would seem to have an ambiguous status. The emancipation of European Jewry, in which she and her family played the greatest imaginable role, became the main target of the Third Reich and its Nuremberg Laws.

For some Jews, she may be a less than admirable figure as well, having left her Jewish husband, violated her divorce settlement, and converted first to Protestantism (which was favorable towards Judaism), and finally to Catholicism (which was not). Most of her later friends were Christians, assimilated or intermarried Jews (like Rahel Levin), or secular Deists and materialists. Her association with Germaine de Staël was obviously of the greatest importance, since she was also the patron and literary companion of Dorothea's second husband, Friedrich Schlegel. De Staël was the daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI's finance minister, and a leading figure in the collapse of the Bourbons and the French Revolution. (See Christopher Herrold's "Mistress to an Age.") It was probably through de Staël's husband, a Swedish Count, that the Schlegel's were granted a title of nobility in the Swedish court.

[1] In older literature and on her gravestone one finds the date 1763, but this is the birthyear of her older sister Sara (May 23rd 1763-April 15 1764) whose untimely death was one of the reasons Moses Mendelssohn wrote the Phaedon. (Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn, London 1973, Moses Mendelssohn, Jubilaeumsausgabe, Bd. 12,1, S. 43; letter to Thomas Abbt, May 1st 1764)



  • Florentin, Lübeck und Leipzig 1801
  • Gespräch über die neueren Romane der Französinnen, in: Europa (Zeitschrift, herausgegeben von Friedrich Schlegel)
  • Geschichte des Zauberers Merlin, Leipzig 1804

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