Along with Lovis Corinth and others, Franz von Stuck (1863–1928) was one of the co-founders of the Munich Secession, and a career-long painter of myth and narrative. If Corinth is little-known outside Germany, von Stuck is essentially unknown. Usually labelled as a Symbolist, his style changed as much as Corinth’s, and his best paintings are as good, in my opinion.
This short series of articles looks predominantly at his works in those genres, in the context of his life and career.
Born Franz Stuck near Munich in Bavaria, his official title became Franz Ritter von Stuck when he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown in 1906: it was the Bavarian equivalent of ‘Sir Franz Stuck’. Throughout these articles I will refer to him by the usual abbreviation of Franz von Stuck.
As a young boy, he sketched caricatures of locals, and from the age of only eight was taught art in nearby Munich. When he was eighteen, he proceeded to study at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, which he completed in 1885. He then worked on illustrations, cartoons, and designs for newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. He worked in-house for Die Jugend (Youth) magazine and the Fliegenden Blätter (Flying Pages) until 1892.
When not working on illustrations, von Stuck developed his painting skills in portraiture, and figurative works showing classical myth in a more contemporary context. The latter were inspired in part by his love of Arnold Böcklin‘s paintings; the Swiss artist had worked in Munich during the early 1870s.
His early Amor Imperator (1887-88) is a wonderful realist take on the traditional Cupid. He still holds his bow and quiver of arrows, and sports a crown to match the large orb in his left hand. The quiver, crown, and orb are all decorated with hearts. This emperor of love looks much more modern, though, than is normal in art.
In these early paintings, von Stuck started to develop some themes which were to last through the rest of his career. Teasing (1889), a wonderfully loose and Post-Impressionist view in the dappled light of a wood, brings one of the most enduring: the faun, human from the waist up, and goat below.
Von Stuck’s new twist on the lovers’ game of hide and seek around the massive trunk of an ancient tree casts at least one of them as a faun; he leaves us guessing whether the laughing face behind that trunk is that of a nymph, or a female faun, perhaps.
An appropriately topical precursor to the depiction of more complex mythical motifs, von Stuck’s Homage to Painting (1889) shows a winged angel, bearing a laurel crown and palm frond in tribute to a personification of painting. She sits in a throne on a dais, a large palette in her left hand, looking intently at the angel.
Although a not uncommon personification, none of the traditional nine Muses is designated as being inspirational to painting, and more classical references have tended to cite semi-historical figures such as Apelles.
Von Stuck’s first great success was with The Guardian of Paradise (1889), which was exhibited that year in the Munich Glaspalast, won him a gold medal, and sixty thousand Gold Marks in prize money – quite a coup for a painter who was only twenty-six.
This angel stands firm, looking the viewer in the eye, his great aquiline wings outstretched beyond the realms of the canvas. Behind him is the brilliant light of Paradise, illuminating walls of flowers and foliage. He holds a unique staff-cum-sword, thrust away from his body, which has a wavy shaft or blade of flame.
The following year, von Stuck added centaurs to his repertoire of mythical beasts in his Fantastic Hunt (1890). Here an archer centaur has buried his arrow into the right axilla of a deer-like variant, perhaps resembling Actaeon after Diana’s vicious metamorphosis. The deer-centaur’s legs have already buckled under him, and his hands claw at the air in his agony.
For a while, von Stuck took to the ancient Greek tradition of naming his figures. Although he is readily recognisable by the prominence of his musical instrument, in Orpheus Charming the Savage Beasts with his Lyre (1891) his name is inscribed behind his back. The eclectic mixture of predators and prey includes several with long symbolic traditions: the flamingo painted so elegantly was believed by the ancient Egyptians to be a living representation of the god Ra.
Von Stuck also used less familiar and more complex narratives for his paintings. Samson (1891) shows an episode from the life of the Old Testament Judge, which played a central part in Samson’s wedding. Meticulously labelled, it shows the immensely strong Israelite warrior fighting with a huge lion, prising its jaws apart.
When Samson was young, he fell in love with a Philistine woman. Despite the objections of his parents, he decided to marry her, and travelled to propose to her. On that journey, he was attacked by a lion, which he wrestled with, and tore apart, thanks to the strength given to him by God. He told no one about that episode, and when he was on his way to his wedding, came across the carcass of that lion. In its body was a bees’ nest, which contained honey. This inspired the line ‘out of strength came forth sweetness’, which was long used as a motto on tins of golden syrup.
During Samson’s wedding feast, he posed his thirty Philistine groomsmen a riddle based on his encounters with that lion:
Out of the eater came something to eat.
Out of the strong came something sweet.
The groomsmen did not guess the answer, which Samson only revealed after they had threatened him, and his bride had begged him to do so.
The following year saw von Stuck at the heart of a revolution in art in Munich.