The Doll Princess
by Christian Bürger
The Doll Princess
by Christian Bürger
Auguste Dorothea of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt (1666-1751)
Rarely does it happen with aristocratic couples from the early modern period that the wife outshines the husband – at least posthumously. In the case of the married couple Auguste Dorothea and Anton Günther II of Schwarzburg Arnstadt, things are a little different. Auguste Dorothea was born Princess of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in 1666, married Anton Günther of Schwarzburg in 1684 and lived as a widow near Arnstadt for almost 40 years after his death. This is not so far unusual. What is unusual, however, is that already during her marriage, but especially during her widowhood, she assembled what is probably the most important Baroque doll collection in Germany. Today, the collection is known as “Mon Plaisir” and can be admired in the Arnstadt Castle Museum. As a result, Auguste Dorothea enjoys a high profile today, while her husband is almost forgotten.
The County of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt
During their lifetime this was still different. Anton Günther, second-born son of Count Anton Günther I of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, had inherited the county together with his brother Christian Wilhelm. Only when their common uncle also died childless was there enough land for the brothers to share the county. Anton Günther then took up residence in 1682 in the now ruinous Neideck Castle in Arnstadt and founded the collateral line Schwarzburg-Arnstadt (II).
The count’s financial and political possibilities were very limited. The only regular income was from the chamber estates. There were no fixed taxes, because on the one hand they were not yet a regular institution that could simply be levied and on the other hand the Schwarzburgs were not allowed to levy any in the majority of their territory anyway, as they usually only carried them as a fief, which largely excluded the right to levy taxes.
The Muses’ Children Anton Günther and Auguste Dorothea
Against this background, a common interpretation is that the “Duodezfürsten”, due to their political insignificance, would have realised themselves within the framework of a court of the Muses. And indeed, at first glance, this seems to have been the case with Anton Günther. He employed a stately court orchestra (including members of the Bach family), a court painter, carried out interior decorations in the residential palace, collected paintings, sculptures and especially coins. His coin collection enjoyed an excellent reputation among his contemporaries and was known far beyond the borders of Thuringia. The problem, however, was that Anton Günther completely overstretched himself with his lavish court life. Debts and financial bottlenecks accompanied his entire reign.
His wife Auguste Dorothea was also partly to blame. The two visited the Leipzig fairs every year and spent enormous sums of money there, because Auguste Dorothea shared her husband’s passion for collecting. In addition to Chinese porcelain, faience and paintings, she also loved dolls. A court bill for “popenzeug” (dolls’ things) is recorded for the first time from 1697. Anton Günther repeatedly had to take over his wife’s debts. In 1712, the couple’s financial plight led to Anton Günther, by then raised to the rank of a prince of the empire, having to sell his coin collection to Duke Friedrich II of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg for the then legendary sum of 100,000 riksdaler (this corresponds to about 1.6 to 2.2 million euros in today’s money).
Anton Günther II and Auguste Dorothea had no children. As a result, after Anton Günther’s death in December 1716, the Schwarzburg-Arnstadt line became extinct and the dominion passed to his brother Christian Wilhelm von Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. However, it cannot be deduced from the fact that they had no children that they did not have a happy marriage. They addressed each other affectionately in their letters, but maintained a court household in keeping with their status and typical of the time, with separate flats.
Even if their marriage was not without conflict (Auguste Dorothea’s accumulation of debts and especially her conversion from the Lutheran to the Roman Catholic faith put a strain on the relationship), there is in any case no evidence of the kind of aversion one often finds in other couples of their time. Even when Anton Günther became increasingly ill in his last years, Auguste Dorothea was at his side and accompanied him in the hour of his death, as can be seen from the printed funeral sermon.
Neues Palais Arnstadt, houses the Arnstadt Castle Museum; © Michael Sander; CC3.0; Link: to the licence
As a widow at Augustenburg Castle
At the beginning of the 18th century, a pleasure palace was built for Auguste Dorothea in Oberndorf near Arnstadt, which was named “Augustenburg” after her. This was also to be her widow’s residence from 1717 until her death in 1751. After the death of her husband, Auguste Dorothea had to argue for a long time with her brother-in-law, Prince Christian Wilhelm, about her inheritance and widow’s claims. But even the allowance she won in these disputes, which was in keeping with her rank, was not nearly enough to cover her costs.
It can be said that Auguste Dorothea was incapable of handling money appropriately. She loved art, collecting and her lavish court life too much. Auguste Dorothea was unable to pay off the steadily increasing debts during her lifetime. She died in 1751 and was buried, at her request, in the Ursuline Convent in Erfurt.
The merit of patronage
The majority of the doll collection was created during her widowhood. The Catholic Church, court theatre, courtly society and the pleasures of the table are depicted as well as craftsmen, day labourers, market goings-on and the pharmacy trade. This shows that Auguste Dorothea was also very interested in the everyday life of ordinary people. Her doll’s houses provide a detailed picture of everyday scenes of the Baroque period and are a self-testimony of Auguste Dorothea’s personality and world of thought. One can find examples of the remembrance of her deceased husband, her Catholic piety, but also her love for collections (Wunderkammerszene) and her preference for high-quality fabrics and luxury goods (Höfische Szenen) in the doll’s houses.
Historical significance and merit
Despite her inability to manage her budget properly, justice will have to be done. It was undoubtedly an annoyance for suppliers when they had to wait for outstanding invoices to be settled or only received payments on account. It was also, no doubt, always a nuisance for Auguste Dorothea’s entourage when her debts had to be taken over or relatives were forced to lend her money. The servants, too, may have been annoyed that their salaries were not paid on time, even though the job at court, with the addition of board and lodging, was certainly more attractive to most of them than other jobs. Even for the supplying artists, payments on account were still better than no orders. One can therefore assume that the creditors were largely pragmatic about their way of doing business.
Even if her financial behaviour was questionable, such a unique collection would not have been created and survived to the present day if she had not acted in this way. By doing so, she has, in a figurative sense, created a monument for herself. It is questionable whether she would still play a role in public memory today if she had lived demonstratively frugally. Through her collecting activities she also succeeded in doing what many early modern princesses did not – being more present than her actual reigning husband. However, this was probably not her primary goal. From this point of view, one will therefore have to make a differentiated assessment of her life, because without spending money, no collection, without a collection, no cultural monument “Mon Plaisir” – and without “Mon Plaisir, no such effective remembrance of the person Auguste Dorothea, Princess of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt.
Printed curriculum vitae from the funeral sermon of Anton Günther II from 1716/17, probably by the superintendent of Arnstadt.
Cremer, Annette: Mon Plaisir. Die Puppenstadt der Auguste Dorothea von Schwarzburg (1666-1751). Köln/Weimar/Wien 2015 (=Selbstzeugnisse der Neuzeit, Bd. 23).
Cremer, Annette: Märzen und frommer Landesherr. Fürst Anton Günther II. von Schwarzburg-Arnstadt (1653-1716). In: Zeitschrift für Thüringische Geschichte 66 (2012), S. 111-154.