Johanna Schopenhauer with her daughter Adele in 1806. Painting by Caroline Bardua
Johanna Schopenhauer was born in Gdańsk, the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, to a family of wealthy merchants of Dutch extraction. Her father, Christian Heinrich Trosiener, was also a senator in the city. At 18 years of age she married Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, a rich merchant twenty years her senior. He was to become the father of her two children, Arthur and Adele Schopenhauer.
In 1806, shortly after her husband's death, Johanna and Adele moved to Weimar. She had no relatives or close acquaintances in that city. The reason she chose Weimar, then the centre of German literary life, as her new residence, is rumoured to have been the desire to meet Goethe. At the time of Johanna's arrival, however, Weimar was on the brink of a war against France: French military troops commanded by Napoleon were heading to the city, and combat broke out shortly after Johanna and Adele's arrival. It's thought that, even though it was widely known that a conflict between France and Weimar was imminent, Johanna didn't know of that danger before she arrived in the city. Though transportation out of the city was available to her and her daughter, she decided to stay in Weimar as she didn't want to leave her servants to their own luck. During wartime Johanna was very active at the local scene: she harboured German officials arrived in the city, and they dined at her house; volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers; and sheltered many of the less fortunate Weimar citizens whose homes French soldiers had taken over. As a result, she quickly became very popular in Weimar.
Past the war, she earned a good reputation as salonnière. For years to come literary celebrities – e.g. Goethe, Wieland, the Schlegel brothers August and Friedrich, and Tieck — twice a week gathered in her house. As proven by letters she exchanged with her son, her plan to host Germany's greatest minds in salon reunions had been made before she moved out of Hamburg. Goethe's endorsement was a major factor behind Johanna's quick social success: Johanna was the first upper-class woman in Weimar society to willingly open the doors of her house to Goethe's wife, Christiane Vulpius, who was of lower-class background and a mistress of Goethe's before legally marrying him during the French invasion. And in gratitude, Goethe became one of the first and most commonly seen figures in Johanna's reunions, which alone ensured the popularity of her parties.
At first, Arthur Schopenhauer didn't move to Weimar along with his family; he instead remained in Hamburg. Due to a promise he had made to his father, which Arthur refused to break even after Henrich Floris's death, he felt obliged to go on with his merchant apprenticeship. Johanna had a difficult relationship with her famous son. Upon moving to Weimar in 1809, Arthur didn't settle in his mother's home, but to that of his young instructor, Franz Passow, for his mother didn't want to live with him. Many of the extant letters she wrote him attest to her exasperation towards Arthur's pessimistic outlook on life, his haughtiness, and his assertive manners. (As his mother destroyed all the letters he wrote her, Arthur's side of the story is unknown). Though in 1813 she at last permitted him to live with her, the arrangement soon failed: a year later Johanna asked her son to leave the house following a heated argument between the two of them over Johanna's friendship with her lodger, a younger man named Georg von Gerstenbergk.
From 1814 onwards, mother and son no longer met. Thenceforth all communication between the two happened by means of correspondence—but even this changed after she read a letter Arthur sent to his sister, about their father's death, where Arthur pointed to Johanna as being responsible for the tragedy, rumored to be a suicide, saying that, whilst their father was bedridden by illness, Johanna amused herself in social reunions and abandoned her husband to the care of an employee. Still, in 1819 Arthur made a move to re-establish his family bonds. In that year, the Schopenhauer ladies had lost the greater part of their fortune due to a bank crisis, and Arthur expressed willingness to share with them his portion of his inheritance—an offer Johanna dismissed.
Only in 1831 did their correspondence resume; it continued in sporadic fashion until Johanna's death in 1838. Apparently the philosopher's many difficulties—the ill-fate of his books, the failure of his brief career as a teacher at Berlin University, and also some physical ailments—led him to again seek contact with his family. But Johanna and Arthur Schopenhauer would never again meet in person. As a matter of fact, even after her death Schopenhauer continued to speak against her, making little of her skills as a mother and portraying her as an all around selfish person. In her will, Johanna Schopenhauer made Adele her sole heir. That she probably did not do out of spite for her son: for, whilst Arthur lived economically and was well-off, having not only preserved but even doubled his share of his father's wealth, Adele, as Johanna foresaw, would experience financial difficulties after her mother's death—something in which the spendthrift Johanna played no small role.
In Weimar Johanna Schopenhauer made a name as an author. She was the first German woman writer to publish books without making use of a pseudonym. During a little more than a decade, from the late 1810s to the early 1830s, her literary production turned her into the most famous woman author in Germany. In 1831 her writings received a second edition at Brockhaus' publishing house: the collected oevres filled no less than 24 volumes. Nothing, however, could compensate for those financial setbacks. For reasons of ill health, Johanna and Adele Schopenhauer, being no longer able to maintain their lifestyle in Weimar, moved to Bonn. In the middle 1830s their situation would deteriorate further as Johanna's fame decayed. Almost without resources, Johanna wrote to the Duke of Weimar, speaking of her plight. In 1837 the Duke, in acknowledgment of her former fame, offered her a small pension and invited her, and also Adele, to live in Jena. There Johanna died the following year. She left incomplete the manuscript of a last work, her autobiography, whose contents narrate her early life until Arthur's birth.