E. T. A. Hoffmann and Ludwig Devrient, who were regular patrons of the Lutter & Wegner wine tavern, painting by Hermann Kramer (oil on canvas)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

E. T. A. Hoffmann

A jurist, a reveller and a poet: the life of this exceptional character was full of contrasts. He was both a conscientious clerk and a passionate artist. In his works, everyday life and fantasy stood side by side and often merged and became one.

“On weekdays, I am a jurist and somewhat of a musician at most; on Sundays I draw during the day and in the evening, I become a very witty author until late into the night.”

Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann was born on 24th January 1776 in Königsberg (Prussia, now Kaliningrad). Four years later, his father Christoph Ludwig, who was known to be a temperamental lawyer and drinker, divorced his mother Lovisa Albertina (née Doerffer), who was described as a hysterical and obsessively orderly woman. Hoffmann spent his childhood in the house of his grandmother Lovisa Sophia Doerffer. One of his uncles would give the young boy drawing and music lessons and he created his first compositions aged 13.

At the age of 16 Hoffmann, as per family tradition, began to study law, passed his first exams after just three years and entered the civil service as a law clerk. Meanwhile, he also drew, painted, wrote and composed.

First steps towards Berlin

Hoffmann’s work took him from Königsberg to Berlin. He enjoyed the cultural life there, visiting concerts, the theatre, and galleries. Among his new acquaintances were the director of the Königliche Nationaltheater [Royal National Theatre] at Gendarmenmarkt August Wilhelm Iffland and the singer and actor Franz von Holbein, with whom he would work together years later in Bamberg. While in the Prussian capital, Hoffmann completed his first stage play “Die Maske” [the Mask], which he sent to Queen Luise of Prussia in the faint hope that she would help him put it on as a public performance. Hoffmann would take composition lessons with the then renowned kapellmeister and author Johann Friedrich Reichardt.

He passed his third law exam with the grade “excellent” in 1800. Hoffmann however was not able to continue working in Berlin, as he had hoped. Instead, he was transferred to work as an assessor in Posen (Poznań), which, until a few years prior, had been part of the Kingdom of Poland. There he married Maria (Mischa) Thekla Michaelina Rorer-Trzynska in 1803. She gave birth to a daughter in July 1805, whom the proud father christened Caecilia, after the patron saint of music. However, as fate would have it, the Hoffmanns‘ only child would die two years later.


In 1804, Hoffmann was sent to work as a councillor in Warsaw (Warszawa), which had been under Prussian occupation since 1796. There, he befriended the young Berlin-born assessor Julius Eduard Hitzig, who introduced him to contemporary romantic literature. He also continued to dedicate himself to music, composing and directing an amateur orchestra. Out of admiration for the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), Hoffmann changed his name to Ernst Theodor Amadeus in 1805.
Julius Eduard Hitzig, portrait on a vase made by the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur (KPM) [Royal Porcelain Factory], Berlin, between 1837 and 1844
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

When Napoleon’s French troops occupied Warsaw in 1806, the Prussian public authorities were dissolved. Like most of his colleagues, Hoffmann refused to swear allegiance to the new French government, which resulted in him losing his job. The following year he returned to Berlin, where he was once again unsuccessful in gaining employment. Unexpectedly, he received an offer to work as a musical director in Bamberg. There, over the following years, he would make a living working as a kapellmeister, theatre painter, composer, theatre architect and music teacher. He was also deeply involved in music criticism and writing. In 1813, he was offered a one-year engagement as a theatrical kapellmeister in Dresden.

Finally there

Berlin was one of Hoffmann’s two main places of activity. He made three attempts to establish himself there over the years. His succeeded on his third attempt: Hoffmann settled permanently in the Prussian capital in September 1814. Unlike during his previous stopovers in Berlin, Hoffmann, who by that time had become a successful artist, was no longer unknown. The first volumes of “Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier“ [Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner] caused a sensation. To welcome Hoffmann, Julius Eduard Hitzig organized a banquet and introduced his colleague to a circle of literary friends, who included Adelbert von Chamisso, Friedrich Baron de la Motte-Fouqué, David Ferdinand Koreff and Karl Wilhelm Contessa.   

After Hoffmann’s Zauberoper [magic opera] “Undine” was successfully premiered at the Königliche Nationaltheater at Gendarmenmarkt in 1816 to celebrate King Frederick William III’s birthday , he also gained recognition as a composer. The opera was well received by both the audience and the press. Hoffman’s music and Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s stage design were praised by all. Only the libretto written by Fouqué was criticised, as it was said to have lacked the dramatic moments required to understand the plot.

„Der Gensd´armesmarkt mit dem alten Schauspielhause“ [Gendarmenmarkt with the old playhouse] during Hoffmann’s time, drawing by Friedrich August Calau (aquatint on paper), 1815
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
After that, it’s likely that Hoffmann hoped to obtain a position at the Königliche Nationaltheater. However, that never came to fruition. Although he had been working at the Kammergericht [state court] on Lindenstraße since 1815, he only obtained a permanent paid position at the Kriminalsenat in 1816. From then on he led two different lives, so to speak – that of a jurist and that of an artist. The fact that both “E. T. W.“ and “E. T. A.“  Hoffmann referred to the same person was soon common knowledge in Berlin. Even King Frederick William III himself would eventually have to acknowledge it, albeit disapprovingly.

Escape into fantasy

From July 1815, Hoffmann and his wife Mischa lived in a grand apartment on the corner of Taubenstraße and Charlottenstraße, overlooking the Gendarmenmarkt. The apartment was 128 square metres and was comprised of four rooms, a kitchen and servants’ quarters. The Lutter & Wegner restaurant was in the immediate vicinity. Hoffmann simply loved to sit there all night long with his artist friends, drinking rum, red wine and champagne and spinning tales. At just 15 square metres, the poet’s study was the smallest room in the apartment. From there, he had a fabulous view of the entire square and the back of the theatre. The view of the Gendarmenmarkt from this window would later become the backdrop for one of the last stories he wrote, “Des Vetters Eckfenster“ [My Cousin’s Corner Window].

For all of his life, E. T. A. Hoffmann suffered from the constraints, misery, and sadness of Prussian reality, which he repeatedly portrayed in his stories, novels, and fairy tales with the accuracy that one would expect of a detail-obsessed investigating judge. He believed that only artists and children could escape the constraints of everyday life thanks to their imagination. He befriended them at every opportunity. He would spontaneously come up with stories and fairy tales for them that were never written down.
The so-called Kunzische Riss: A print from 1904, based on a caricature by E. T. A. Hoffmann (pen on paper) from 1815. It depicts his living environment at Gendarmenmarkt in a non-perspective representation. Hoffmann enclosed the sheet of paper in a letter dated July 18th to his friend Kunz in Bamberg.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Sudden end

A short time later, Hoffmann fell seriously ill. He wrote the story “Meister Floh” [Master Flea] while bedridden. He had to dictate “Des Vetters Eckfenster“ [My Cousin’s Corner Window], as, by that time, he was completely paralysed. E.T.A. Hoffmann died in Berlin at the age of 46 on 25th June 1822. He was laid to rest on 28th June at the Jerusalem-Gemeinde cemetery by Hallesches Tor (Kreuzberg). His estate was auctioned off that same year. Julius Eduard Hitzig was able to acquire part of it. The Stadtmuseum Berlin is in possession of the manuscripts for the nocturne “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman] and the libretto for the opera “Undine”, among other things.

Page from the handwritten manuscript of “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman] by E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1812
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
In his biography “Aus Hoffmanns Leben und Nachlaß“ ” [from Hoffmann’s life and legacy], which was published in 1822/23, Hitzig described his friend as follows: “Hoffmann was of very small stature, of sallow complexion, had dark, almost black hair which grew all the way down to his forehead, grey eyes, which appeared unremarkable when he stared straight ahead, but when he winked, as he’d often do, then they’d take on an exceptionally cunning expression. His nose was narrow and curved, his mouth shut tight. Outwardly, his most striking feature was his extraordinary mannerisms, which would reach a climax whenever he told a story. When he greeted people and bid farewell, his neck would make short, fast, repetitive flexing movements, while his head would remain completely still, which could appear somewhat grotesque and could easily come across as ironic if the impression made by this strange gesture wasn’t offset by his very friendly nature on such occasions.”