Johanna Schopenhauer  

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

Johanna Schopenhauer, née Trosiener (July 9, 1766 – April 17, 1838), was a German author who is currently known primarily for being the mother of Arthur Schopenhauer.


Johanna Schopenhauer was born in Dantzig to a family of wealthy merchants of Dutch extraction. Her father, Christian Heinrich Trosiener, was also a senator in the city. He was a man of republican leanings, and Anglophile with good knowledge of the culture and literature of England, and also of those of France. Consistent with his means, he tried to provide his daughter a good education in languages and letters, something from which Johanna profitted richly. Early on, she manifested great skill in the learning and use of languages, already speaking as a young girl English, French and Polish—the latter of which she learned even before her mother tongue.

She married early, at 18 years of age, to a man twenty years her senior, and whom she had known for only a month: Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, future father of her two children—Arthur and Adele Schopenhauer—and himself also a rich merchant. Love between the couple there was none. But the arrangement, though unhappy, at least to the wife seems to have brought some satisfaction, as she began to partake of one of Schopenhauer's pleasures, that of voyaging. The couple often travelled to both England and continental Europe, and in this manner they made acquaintance of many of the celebrities of the time, such as Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, Madame de Stael, etc.. It was shortly after one of such voyages that Arthur was born in Danzig in 1788; Adele was born in Hamburg in 1797, where the family took refuge after the 1793 Prussian invasion of Dantzig.

After her husband's death in 1805 (apparently of suicide), Johanna and Adele moved to Weimar, then the centre of German literary life. Until this time, Johanna did not have in there either friends or acquaintances; it it said that the reason why she chose Weimar as her new residence was her desire of meeting Goethe. But Weimar was in danger of military conflict against French forces commanded by Napoleon, and indeed, the war broke out little after Johanna's and Adele's arrival. Though Johanna did try to flee the city, she was prevented of doing so by lack of transportation means. So she had to stay in the city and adapt herself to the situation: she invited to dine in her house German officials arrived in the city and volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers. Many of the less fortunate citizens also took shelter in her house after French soldiers had invaded theirs. On account of all this she quickly became very popular in Weimar, and, as she wrote her son, who lived in Hamburg in the period, she already felt more at home in there (in Weimar) than she ever did in Hamburg.

Past the war, she earned a good reputation as salonnière, and for years to come literary celebrities would twice a week gather in her house. The following are examples of such: Goethe, Wieland, the Schlegel brothers August and Friedrich, Tieck, etc.. Meanwhile, Arthur Schopenhauer, as said above, studied in Hamburg, for he had to attend Commerce school due to a promise made to his father which he insisted in carrying out in spite of the latter's death.

Guided by her Weimar friend Carl Ludwig Fernow, Johanna liberated her son to study what he would prefer in the gymnasium of Gottingen. Though in there Arthur soon showed to be a brilliant student, due to a complaint of one of his teachers to the school administration against the young man, he had to continue his studies elsewhere—in Weimar no less, at the house of the young philologist Franz Passow, who became his instructor. Already by 1809, two years after the commencement of his academic studies, he would enroll in Gottingen University.

The reason why Arthur moved to Passow's house, and not to that of his mother's, is that Johanna did not want to live with him. Only to the salon reunions she allowed his visit, for, as many of the extant letters she wrote him attest, she could not bear his presence: his pessimism and gloominess, to say nothing of his haughtiness and nagging ways, were not congenial to her own character (as for Arthur's side of the story, it is unknown since his mother destroyed all the letters he wrote her). It was 1813 when she at last permitted him to live with her, though the arrangement soon failed, and a year later, after a heated argument between mother and son, Arthur was asked to leave the house. The reason for this particular fight was Johanna's friendship with her lodger, a somewhat younger man named Georg von Gerstenbergk.

From 1814 onwards, mother and son no longer met. Thenceforth all communication between the two happened by means of correspondence, but even this ceased when Johanna read a letter of Arthur to Adele about their father's suicide. In it Arthur pointed to Johanna as being responsible for the tragedy, saying of her that, whilst their father suffered ill in bed, delievered to the care of an employee, she amused herself in social reunions without dedicating to the husband either thought or time. Still, in 1819 Arthur made a move to re-establish his family bonds. In that year, the Schopenhauer ladies lost the greater part of their fortune due a crisis within the bank in which it was deposited. Arthur showed himself willing to part with them his share of his inheritance—an offer Johanna did not accept.

Only in 1831 their correspondence resumed, continuing in sporadic fashion until Johanna's death in 1838. It seems that the philosopher's many difficulties—the ill-fate of his books, the failure of his brief career as a teacher in Berlin University, and also some physical ailments—led him to again seek contact with his family. But Johanna and Arthur Schopenhauer would never again meet in person, and even after her death, Schopenhauer continued to express complaints about her—about how bad a mother she was. In her will, Johanna Schopenhauer made Adele her sole heir. She probably did not do that out of spite to her son: for, whilst Arthur lived in economical comfort, having not only preserved but even doubled what he received of his father's wealth, Adele, as Johanna foresaw, would pass financial difficulties after her death—something in which Johanna played no small role.

In Weimar Johanna Schopenhauer made a name as an authoress. She was the first German woman writer to publish books without making use of a pseudonym, and during a little more than a decade, from the late 1810s to the early 1830s, her literary production turned her into the most famous woman author in Germany. In 1831 her writings received a second edition at Brockhaus' publishing house: the collected oevres filled no less than 24 volumes. But not even this could compensate for those financial setbacks; under the guise of health issues, Johanna and Adele Schopenhauer, being no longer able to maintain their lifestyle in Weimar, moved to Bonn. In the middle 1830s their situation would become even worse due to the fading of Johanna's fame. Now almost without resources, Johanna wrote to the Duke of Weimar a letter in which she narrated her current plight. The Duke, in acknowledgment to the once so fêted writer, conceded her, in 1837, a small pension and invited her, and also Adele, to live in Jena. In there Johanna died the following year. She left incomplete the manuscript of a last work, her autobiography, whose contents narrate her early life until Arthur's birth.


It was not much after her arrival in Weimar that Johanna began to publish her writings, some articles on paintings with an emphasis on those by Jan Van Eyck. In 1810, she published her first book: a biography of her friend Fernow, who had died two years before, which she wrote with the intention to pay his heirs' debts with his editor. As the book met with critical success, Johanna felt estimulated to pursue a career as an authoress—a career on which her livelihood would depend, after the aforementioned financial difficulties. First came the publication of her travelogues, which were also acclaimed, and then of her fiction work, which, for a little more than a decade, made her the most famous woman author in Germany. The following are her best known novels: Gabriele (1819), Die Tante (1823) and Sidonia (1827).

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