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History, Music

Historic photo, and a mystery: is this Mozart’s wife?

See the video version of this article, here:

The above photo, a daguerreotype–the earliest kind of photography–was taken in Altötting, in Bavaria, in 1840. The man at center is Max Keller, a German composer of the period. Look at the woman in black to the left of him (his right). Some people have claimed that this woman is Constanze Weber Mozart von Nissen, the widow of legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. If this is her, she was 78 years old and this was taken not very long before her death on March 6, 1842.

But is this really Constanze Mozart? There are evidently passionate defenders on both sides of the issue. The provenance of this photo, being so old, is difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy. In researching this article I came across various competing claims: one that the picture was discovered in the Altötting state archives in 2004, and another that it first surfaced in 1958. The photo clearly does show Max Keller and the woman sitting to his left is his wife. Constanze Mozart, an Austrian, is known to have been friendly with Keller and visited him many times; however, some historians assert that she did not do so after 1826, when her second husband, Danish diplomat Georg Nikalaus von Nissen, died.

Constanze Mozart certainly had a fascinating life. She first met Mozart in Mannheim, now in Germany, in 1777 when he was 21 and she 15, but at first he didn’t notice her–in fact he had the hots for her sister Aloysia. For reasons not entirely clear Aloysia dumped Wolfgang and both moved on to other relationships. By 1781 both Mozart and Constanze were living in Vienna. Because he already knew the family Mozart decided to rent a room from Constanze’s mother, but she threw him out when he began fooling around with her. Eventually they were married in August 1782 against the wishes of the surviving parents of both members of the couple.

constanze mozart 1782

Constanze Weber Mozart as she appeared in 1782, the year of her marriage to the famous composer.

After Mozart’s death in December 1791, Constanze was something like the Yoko Ono of the 18th century. She argued for, and received, a pension from the Austrian government, in whose employ Mozart had once been. She also lived largely on the reputation of her famous husband, organizing and publishing his works and eventually collaborating on a biography of him with von Nissen, whom she met in 1797. She’d had six kids by Wolfgang but only two survived to adulthood. She survived her first husband by over half a century.

My own thought on this photo is that it is very obviously not Constanze Mozart. I have two reasons for saying so. First, the woman said to be her is way too young. In 1840 Constanze was 78. Look at the woman on the left front–she has dark hair and appears to be no more than 40. Respectable women did not dye their hair in the 1840s, and living in those days was hard; probably she would have looked a lot more like the woman to Keller’s left, wizened and ancient with white hair. Second, the very fact that this family portrait was taken outdoors virtually proves that it could not have been taken during Constanze’s lifetime. Portraits of the time were carefully staged in very precise lighting conditions–the lenses needed to capture casual lighting for a recognizable photo were not invented until later. This photo probably dates from the late 1840s, after Constanze was dead.

As it turns out, my opinion is supported by several noted Mozart scholars, who have declared the photo a fake. Oh well. It would have been interesting, if true. Like the very entertaining but very inaccurate movie Amadeus, this is just another piece of Mozart mythology.


  1. I also had hoped this photo would be authentic, while skeptical that could be. Thank you for a great post on a great lady.

  2. I disagree. The woman in the photo is certainly not 40 or even 50: Look at her hands and her rather wasted cheeks. The photo also resembles the later portrait of Costanze by Hans Hansen. Same long nose and very narrow chin.

    • You really think that woman looks 78? Mighty sprightly for such an old age, methinks. As they said in the old commercials, “Does she or doesn’t she? [Dye her hair] Only her hairdresser knows for sure!”

      In any event, the photo is a proven hoax, and we don’t even need to parse the appearance of the people in it to know that it cannot be of her. The fact that it was taken outdoors is conclusive (as is also the fact that Constanze Mozart was seriously ill at the time it’s said to have been taken). L.A. Times article from 2006:

      “Constanze Mozart was crippled by arthritis by 1840 and died in 1842. There is absolutely no way she could have traveled to visit Maximillian Keller during the period when the photograph was taken. Contrary to the statements made in the newspaper, Constanze had no contact with Keller since 1826.”

      Michael Lorenz at the University of Vienna’s Institute of Musicology has also refuted the photo’s authenticity.

      “The ‘newly discovered’ picture of Constanze Mozart has already been published twice in the 1950s,” Lorenz wrote on the blog Sounds & Fury. “For decades it has been known as a hoax among Mozart experts. There are no outdoor photographs of groups of people dating from 1840 because the lenses invented by Joseph Petzval, which were to make such portraits possible, were not available yet.”


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