Author and Painter. He was born into a relatively well-off but later impoverished family, to Rudolf Keller, a master turner, and Elisabeth Keller, née Scheuchzer, and experienced a difficult childhood after his father’s premature death. With the limited financial means his father had left to him, he made an apprenticeship as a landscape painter in Zürich, and later moved to Munich to complete his art studies, a plan which he abandoned two years later. When studying in Heidelberg, he witnessed the rising political tensions leading up to the liberal revolution of 1848/1849, as well as its aftermath in Berlin, where he lived from 1850 to 1855. The revolution was eventually suppressed by conservative forces, so when he had seen enough, he returned to Switzerland, where he established himself as a prolific and well connected political writer and activist. Among his most prominent comrades counted liberal revolutionaries such as composer Richard Wagner, or architect Gottfried Semper. Switzerland had by then become their favourite refuge, because it was the only European country where the liberal revolution could prevail. After the short Sonderbundkrieg, the "very civil civil war" as an English contemporary had put it, opposing liberal Protestants to the mostly conservative Catholics; the country was on its way to modernity. It was also at that time, when "Eisenbahnkönig" Alfred Escher (1819-1882) monopolized Switzerland’s economic development, and literally turned it into a "one-man show". A scheme denounced as "System Escher", Gottfried Keller and many others where fiercely opposed to. In this context, he expressed in his most important novel "Der grüne Heinrich", his uneasiness about the course the revolution had taken in Switzerland, which had disappointed many of its more idealistic supporters. The largely autobiographic novel of 1854 recounts the frustrated attempt of its young protagonist Heinrich to become a painter, an ambition, which is constantly undermined by his contemporary’s wholly materialistic and utilitarian world-view. The novel ends in an ambivalent and melancholy conclusion: After many vain efforts, Heinrich returns to his hometown, where he is unexpectedly appointed town clerk of Zürich, a position which ensures him of a high social standing, but represents a complete surrender to the values of the ruling class. The novel’s ambiguous outcome is underlined by Heinrich’s romantic relationship to his first love Judith, a beautiful and somewhat older woman. This element was meant to further disappoint the contemporary reader’s expectations, because the literary convention at that time would have been that of marriage and the founding of a family. Judith eventually dies in an attempt to rescue children from a situation of acute danger. It can be read as a symbolistic element, but certainly also refers to the suicide of Gottfried Keller’s fiancée Luise Scheidegger in 1866, and was included years later into the strongly revised second edition of 1879. In his later years, Gottfried Keller occasionally returned to painting. His painterly work is on permanent public display at the Kunsthaus Zürich. Keller’s epic oeuvre stands at the transition of Realism and the narrative traditions of the 18th century. While his important contribution to Switzerland’s nation building is still widely remembered today, his criticism of economic laissez-faire liberalism has been played down by generations of politicians and German teachers, who canonized him instead, and turned him into a national icon, a position, Gottfried Keller has never sought, neither as an artist, nor as an independent-minded citizen and contemporary.
Bio by: Robert Savary