Psyches, Butterflies, Dragonflies: The Winged Papercuts of Adele Schopenhauer

Catriona MacLeod, Chicago, IL, July 2020.

Sister of the philosopher Arthur and daughter of the accomplished Weimar novelist and salonnière Johanna, the sculptor and novelist manquée Adele Schopenhauer (1797-1847) is best known today for her virtuoso skills in papercutting. Thomas Mann gave her a memorable cameo appearance in his 1939 novel Lotte in Weimar. Set in 1816, the novel recounts how Goethe’s aging former beloved Charlotte Kestner pays a visit to Weimar, the town presided over by its resident – and tyrannical – genius: Goethe. The gossipy Adele presents to Charlotte what she calls ‘a mere trifle’: a by now, according to Mann’s narrative, outmoded papercut ‘carefully stuck on to black cardboard’ in which Adele depicts herself alongside her close female friends in a Romantic society of muses.[1] (This female Musenverein, incidentally, is greatly disparaged by Goethe). Schopenhauer’s real-life paper cuts illustrating literary works, often from popular or ‘folk’ genres such as ballad and fairy-tale, include, for example Goethe’s West-Eastern Diwan and ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ and ‘Wedding Song’, as well as August Hagen’s epic Olfried and Lisena.[2] Other orientalizing works draw on August Wilhelm Schlegel’s work on India. In the case of the ‘Four Seasons’, she brings together in a single, composite image literary allusions from Goethe (‘The Fisherman’), Schiller (‘The Maiden from a Foreign Land’), and Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale).

              Schopenhauer is one of several Romantic era paper cut artists who are reassessed in my book in progress, Romantic Scraps: Cutouts, Collages, and Inkblots. No mere trifles, her works reveal much about the gendering of craft, the powerful fragility of craft objects, erotic attachments to albums, attitudes towards creativity, the role of salons, and questions of literary canonicity as they intersect with craft. As Melanie Micir’s and Aarthi Vadde’s recent work on women’s collage activities on the margins of modernism has argued, the critical potential and placement of ‘weakly theoretical’ amateur works created, contained, and transmitted in precarious, semi-public spaces such as scrapbooks also deserve attention.[3]

              Unpublished in her lifetime, Schopenhauer’s work in paper vanished into an intimate constellation of private albums, self-conscious repositories of emotion.[4] Having met the talented collector and salonnière Sibylle Mertens-Schaaffhausen in 1828, Schopenhauer spent the next two decades until her death in a passionate relationship with the married mother of six–a friendship that has been narrated as queer by Angela Steidele in her 2010 book Geschichte einer Liebe.[5] In the pages of the albums, delicate paper cuts frolic in fantastic pleasure gardens and play out Eros and Psyche narratives. The albums of Adele Schopenhauer were gifts to her beloved friends Ottilie von Goethe and Mertens-Schaaffhausen (she had likewise given paper cuts as gifts to the poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, who was also involved in the women’s relationship, as a rival for Sibylle’s affections). The publication of Schopenhauer’s Scherenschnitte (to use the German term for paper cuts) began only in 1909, with Kurt Wolff’s Insel edition of her diaries, containing seventeen paper cuts, followed in 1913, by Hans Timotheus Kroeber’s publication of a facsimile edition of an album for the subscription members of the Weimarische Literarische Gesellschaft.[6]

              Winged insects and Psyche figures fly through these pages. Female figures are carried on, merge with, dragonflies and butterflies, refusing human scale. They conform, in one sense, to the contemporary view of Scherenschnitte as a small, fugitive art. In an essay on the art of cutting out from 1814, Karl Varnhagen von Ense had called them ‘an elfin game’, ‘tiny flying divinities that cannot attain the heaven of art but flutter nicely enough a few feet above the earth.’[7] Their lightness does not help them achieve soaring Romantic transcendence. On the contrary, butterfly-like, the paper cuts can only flutter a couple of feet above the ground maintaining an insecure equilibrium. But I would suggest that they have more critical, and even violent, potency. Formally, the wings self-reflexively repeat the shape and symmetry of the scissors (the ‘Schere’ in Scherenschnitt) that fashioned them. Ernst Jünger reminds us of the doubleness that characterizes this tool. For even when scissors are at rest, and as it were, a ‘dreaming’ object or a wave that has not yet surged, they contain and imply future violence and pain.[8] Psyche, as the allegorical stand-in for her creator, intensifies the connection between the shadow and the essence of the person, her soul, and is coupled with Eros, himself possessed of an alternative piercing weapon, the arrow, whose role in this Scherenschnitt is to shoot Psyche down to earth.


[1] Thomas Mann, Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 127.

[2] For a reading of this ballad as a send-up of Goethe’s position in the Schopenhauer salon, see Catriona MacLeod, ‘Cutting up the Salon: Adele Schopenhauer’s “Zwergenhochzeit” and Goethe’s “Hochzeitlied”’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 89.1 (2015): 70-87.

[3] Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, ‘Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism’, Modernism/modernity 25.3 (2018): 517-49.

[4] For their British and American counterparts, see Freya Gowrley, ‘Reflective and Reflexive Forms: Intimacy and Medium Specificity in British and American Sentimental Albums, 1800-1860’, Journal 18: A Journal of Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture, Fall 2018,

[5] Angela Steidele, Geschichte einer Liebe: Adele Schopenhauer und Sibylle Mertens (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 2010). The book was supported by the Klassik Stiftung Weimar and is the result of deep archival research in Weimar, Frankfurt, and private collections, occupying a space between scholarship and popular biography.

[6] Adele Schopenhauer, Tagebücher, 2 vols, ed. Kurt Wolff (Leipzig: Insel, 1909); Hans Timotheus Kroeber, Silhouettenbuch der Adele Schopenhauer (Weimar: G. Kiepenheuer, 1913).

[7] Karl Varnhagen von Ense, ‘Vom Ausschneiden’, in Werke, 5 vols, ed. Konrad Feilchenfeldt, (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1990), 4: 384-90; here, 384.

[8] Ernst Jünger, Die Schere (Stuttgart: Klett/Cotta, 1990), 71-76.

Words: © Catriona McLeod, 2020. Images: Adele Schopenhauer, reproduced in: Hans Timotheus Kroeber, Silhouettenbuch der Adele Schopenhauer (Weimar: G. Kiepenheuer, 1913), n.p. Author’s collection.

Author’s Bio

Catriona MacLeod is Frank Curtis Springer and Gertrude Melcher Springer Professor in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago, where she is also affiliated with Art History. Her research focuses primarily on word and image studies, material culture, and feminine creativity in the context of German Classicism and Romanticism. In addition to a new book project in progress, Romantic Scraps: Cutouts, Collages, and Inkblots, she has published Embodying Ambiguity: Androgyny and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Keller and Fugitive Objects: Literature and Sculpture in the German Nineteenth Century. Since 2011, she has been senior editor of the journal Word & Image.

3 thoughts on “Psyches, Butterflies, Dragonflies: The Winged Papercuts of Adele Schopenhauer

Comments are closed.