Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1409
Heinrich Lee loses his father in early childhood. Thereafter, Frau Lee devotes her life to the happiness of her son. She has a boundless faith in the boy’s future, and methodically she uses her small inherited fortune for his education. A large supply of green cloth, left by the father, is used for Heinrich’s clothing, which earns him the nickname Grüner Heinrich, or Green Henry.
When fifteen-year-old Heinrich is dismissed from school for his part in a student prank, he visits relatives in the country and falls in love with his cousin Anna, a beautiful but frail girl. In the same village, he meets Judith, a well-to-do widow, who loves Heinrich. She knows about his love for Anna but assures him that there is enough room in his heart for both. Judith does not intend to leave their relationship on a platonic basis only, and as a result Heinrich is torn between his deep love for the frail Anna and his attraction to the sensual Judith.
Because it is impossible for Heinrich to complete his course of studies, his mother agrees to help him fulfill his dream of becoming a painter. All of Frau Lee’s friends oppose this idea, for it is unthinkable that the child of a respected citizen should embark on so insecure and uncertain a career. In spite of these objections, Frau Lee arranges Heinrich’s apprenticeship in an etcher’s studio. Thereafter, when he visits the village in which Anna and Judith live, he enjoys being called a painter.
After spending some time in a school in Switzerland, Anna becomes ill and dies. Heinrich guards her body during the night before her funeral.
Before long, Heinrich exhausts the knowledge he can gain in the etcher’s studio. His luck changes when he meets a professional painter named Römer. From the start, Römer shows great interest in Heinrich’s work and agrees to be his tutor for a reasonable fee. As usual, Frau Lee is willing to help her son, even though Römer is regarded as completely unreliable, and his talk about connections with members of the aristocracy make him unpopular among her liberal-minded friends. Furthermore, Römer’s financial situation seems not to be as favorable as he tries to have it appear. Proof of this comes when Heinrich, wanting to discontinue his lessons, is approached by Römer for a loan. Heinrich receives more lessons in return for money regarded as a loan.
One day Römer sells a painting. He decides to use the money for a trip to Paris because life in the town has become unbearable for him. Frau Lee writes a polite note in regard to the loan, and Heinrich tries to appeal to Römer’s aristocratic code of honor in order to get the money. Surprisingly, Römer pays without hesitation. Weeks later, Heinrich receives a letter, telling him that Römer is dying in an insane asylum in Paris; the payment to Heinrich left him without a single franc after his arrival there. Heinrich feels guilty because he believes that he has destroyed Römer’s only chance for a new life. He goes to Judith to discuss his moral guilt. She declares bluntly that Heinrich murdered Römer and that he will be forced to live with his crime. Heinrich tells Judith that he can no longer meet her because he wants to remain faithful to Anna. Disappointed, Judith decides to emigrate to America, taking Heinrich’s diary with her.
Heinrich decides to go to Munich. Once more, Frau Lee has difficulty persuading the trustees of Heinrich’s inheritance to release what remains of the money for his study in Munich, and pessimistic predictions are made about Frau Lee’s folly. In Munich, Heinrich meets Ericson, a painter with a realistic attitude toward his art. Attracted to young and idealistic Heinrich, he introduces the young man to a respected Dutch painter, Lys, who sees promise in Heinrich’s drawings. Ericson and Lys give Heinrich the contact he desires with the artistic world. Ericson marries a wealthy widow and leaves Munich. On one occasion, Lys’s irresponsible behavior toward a girl irks Heinrich, and a heated discussion follows. The Dutch painter is also an avowed atheist. Though Heinrich never attends church services, he defends his belief that there is a God so vehemently that Lys feels insulted and challenges him to a duel. The duel is never fought, however, for Lys leaves Munich.
Having now lost his most valuable connections with artistic circles, Heinrich decides to attend lectures at the university. Living a carefree and cheerful student life, he soon exhausts his credit. Realization of his financial situation causes him to resume painting. When he approaches a well-known painter for help, the artist looks at his work and suggests that he show his paintings in a gallery. There Heinrich notices that his work is placed in an obscure corner, but a canvas by the other painter, based on one of his own landscapes, hangs in a prominent place. Heinrich realizes that any other attempt to exhibit his works will stamp him as a plagiarist.
Discouraged, he tries without success to sell his work to small dealers. For days he does not eat; each night, he has apocalyptical nightmares. Money from Frau Lee brings temporary relief. After paying his debts, Heinrich has little left, and he tries to sell drawings he made before leaving home. A secondhand dealer, Schmalhöfer, takes a few of them. When Heinrich returns to the dealer, he is told that his drawings have been sold, and Schmalhöfer asks for more. Later, Schmalhöfer offers him work as a flagpole painter, and he accepts, working steadily from morning to night. After this work comes to an end, he is able to pay all of his debts, with some money left over to make a trip home.
On the way, he accidentally finds shelter at the estate of Count W——berg. To his surprise, he learns that the count is the unknown patron who bought his drawings. Delighted when he learns the identity of his guest, the count offers Heinrich a chance to paint undisturbed. Soon Heinrich forgets his intention to return to his mother. Count W——berg has an adopted daughter, Dorothea, with whom Heinrich falls deeply in love. It is impossible for him to declare his love openly, however, because he feels that to do so would abuse the count’s hospitality.
Having found a sponsor in Count W——berg, Heinrich successfully exhibits a painting in Munich. His old friend Ericson, after reading an account of the exhibit, writes, asking to buy the painting, regardless of price. While in Munich, Heinrich experiences another great surprise when he is informed that Schmalhöfer has died, leaving him a large amount of money. The dealer was impressed by a painter who was, despite his artistic ideals, ready to paint flagpoles all day to pay his debts. The sale of the painting, Schmalhöfer’s bequest, and additional payments by the count for the drawings Schmalhöfer sold to him make Heinrich a fairly rich man. In spite of his good fortunes, however, Heinrich is still not ready to declare his love to Dorothea. Heinrich, who has not written to his mother for many months, decides at last to complete his journey home. When he arrives, he finds his mother dying. The neighbors inform him that a short time before, the police, trying to contact him in connection with Schmalhöfer’s bequest, asked Frau Lee to appear at police headquarters to give information as to her son’s whereabouts. Because the police did not reveal the reason for their questions, his mother believed rumors that a criminal investigation was the cause for the inquiries; her fears and Heinrich’s silence had broken her spirit. After some time, Heinrich is able to regain the confidence of the townspeople and is elected a county official. Then a letter from the count informs him that Dorothea, uncertain of his love, has married another. Peace comes into his life when Judith returns from America to be near him. A realistic woman, she convinces Heinrich that marriage will not be advisable, but she promises to be with him whenever he needs her. After twenty years, Judith dies, and he recovers his diary, which he uses to write the story of his life.
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