Joseph Stieler painted his portrait of Goethe on commission from Ludwig I of Bavaria. In 1828, carrying a letter of recommendation from the King, the artist travelled to Weimar to begin the preliminary portrait work. Goethe's diaries relate the details of Stieler's stay in Weimar, as well as details of the sittings. Three preliminary studies still exist.
Stieler depicted the poet and scholar Goethe as a half-figure sitting at his desk. His upper body is turned frontally to the viewer, while his head is turned to the right, glancing sideward out of the picture confines. The static collectedness of the entire composition and the precise depiction of the facial features are thereby eased and given a more life-like quality.
The poet is holding in his right hand a piece of paper upon which the last lines of a poem written by Ludwig I can be read. The King was the author of a goodly number of passionate poems, which were mostly written in antique metre. He used 28 of his couplets as inscriptions to Carl Rottmann's Italian cycle in Munich's Hofgarten. Goethe's clutching of Ludwig's poem in his hands marked a certain reverence for the King and his poetic creations - no small honor, as Goethe's artistic judgment carried great weight. Other colleagues were not quite as restrained when it came to criticism and mockery of Ludwig's rather awkward verses.