Zeus and Athena by Joseph Dorffmeister


Joseph Dorffmeister

Ödenbourg (Hungary), 1764 – Livorno, circa 1814

Zeus and Athena

Pen and brown ink, grey wash, white heightening on a beige prepared paper. Signed J. Dorffmeister fecit lower right.

385 x 290 mm – 15 3/16 x 11 7/16 in. 


This spectacular drawing is a rare example of graphic work by the Hungarian painter and engraver Joseph Dorffmeister. The pupil of his father, Stefan Dorffmeister, Joseph assisted him in many works painted for local churches before leaving for Vienna where he completed his training. He settled a few years later in Genoa where he joined the Accademia Ligustica di Belle Arti in 1803. Like most expatriated artists, he has suffered from the lack of academic interest and his work have not been yet properly studied. We know through his portrait of the Genoese sculptor Niccolo Traverso that they were friend. The fresco he painted in 1803 in Casino di Negro, on the theme of the Musical Genius, has unfortunately been destroyed.



Dorffmeister remains mostly known for his very precise and decorative portraits. Those of Luisa of Naples and Sicily, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and her husband Ferdinand III, grand Duke of Tuscany, are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Worthy of interest is his portrait of Emperor Napoleon, executed in 1805 ((Christie’s Monaco, 3/04/1987, lot 10).   He also painted large mythological or historical compositions such as Heracles and the mares of Diomedes (art market) and Phidias and the bust of Zeus (Vienna, Akademie der Bildenden Künste).



His drawings are rarely seen on the market. The subject of this spectacular composition, a dialogue between Zeus and his daughter Athena, is unusual. Both of them are seated on clouds, Athena wearing the helmet, spear and the aegis – shield featuring the head of a Gorgon – that only she and Zeus are permitted to carry. Zeus is pointing at what seems to be a flame on the top of his head, alluding to the cephalic origin of the “gleaming eyes” goddess but also to the cleverness and guile, two qualities they have in common. This could be an illustration of Iliad, 17, when Zeus asks Athena to take part in the Trojan war to “excite the Greeks because he had changed his mind.”


The excellent condition, large dimensions and beautiful technique give this drawing a powerful visual effect.


Condition report – The sheet is attached to a mount by with two paper hinges on the verso, at the top. A small hole in the upper right part.  Very slight foxing in the upper part of the composition. Very good overall condition.

Framing options

Pas de cadre, Cadre Louis XVI plat Or (4cm), Cadre Louis XVI plat Noir et Or (4cm), Cadre plat (4cm) teinté ébène, Cadre inversé (3,3 cm) teinté ébène, Cadre Louis XVI or (3cm)