The Painter as History: Ary Scheffer 2

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld (1855), oil on canvas, 171 x 239 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

My first article about the history painter Ary Scheffer (1795–1858) looked at his early work, up to 1831, a period in which he was politically very active, helped put Louis-Philippe on the throne of France, and painted in a classical style which is not dissimilar from that of Géricault.

I also left you with a cliff-hanger: the start of the story of Lenore, by Gottfried August Bürger. In that, Lenore is a young woman who has been expecting her fiancé William to return from the Battle of Prague. But when the rest of the army returns, he is nowhere to be found, and Lenore quarrels with and complains to God.

After her mother had told Lenore to forget William, at midnight there is a knock at the door. A mysterious stranger, who closely resembles the lost William, invites her to accompany him on horseback to their marriage bed. She willingly accepts, and the two ride off at a furious pace by moonlight, through an eery landscape.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Lénore. The Dead Travel Fast (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille (Nord), Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

When Lenore asks the man why they are travelling at such a pace, he replies that the The Dead Travel Fast, the title of this undated painting by Scheffer.

As the sky starts to lighten with the dawn, they arrive at the cemetery gates. As they pass among the tombstones, he transforms into the figure of Death, a skeleton complete with his scythe and hourglass. Lenore then realises that their promised marriage bed is the open grave of William, whose skeleton rests with his shattered armour.

The earth then crumbles from under her feet, and she is surrounded by dancing spirits who tell her that no one can quarrel with God; Lenore, though, still hopes for forgiveness.

Among the many visual artists who have depicted this story are Horace Vernet, Louis Boulanger, Karl Friedrich Lessing, and William Blake. If I can find enough of their works, I will try to assemble a separate account of this story.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Marguerite Coming Out of the Church (1838), media and dimensions not known, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer was an enthusiast of Goethe’s Faust, and painted many scenes from the play, including Marguerite Coming Out of the Church in 1838. The kernel of this story is the scholar who makes a pact with the devil, so that he can indulge in every pleasure and all knowledge for a fixed period of time. During that, the devil’s agent Mephistopheles serves Faust in his quest. Once his time is up, Faust’s soul will be permanently enslaved by the devil.

Margaret/Marguerite, or Gretchen (its shortened form), is Faust’s love, seen here in her initial innocence before he seduces her, with the aid of Mephistopheles, makes her pregnant, persuades her to poison her own mother, and ultimately sees her convicted of drowning her illegitimate child. I suspect that Faust is the man to the right of Marguerite, and Mephistopheles is at the right edge of the painting.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), A Shepherd (1840), oil on canvas, 106 x 80.2 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer was a popular and highly successful portrait painter too, but this painting of A Shepherd from 1840 seems unusual in his work. I wonder if it was perhaps a study for a more ambitious history painting.

During 1847, the reign of Louis-Philippe ran into trouble, and republicanism started to flourish in a series of reform banquets held around the country. France dropped into economic depression, and in February 1848 the government outlawed political banquets. This triggered the February Revolution, the resignation of the Prime Minister, and the formation of the Second Republic by the liberal opposition and republicans.

Scheffer was a captain of the Garde Nationale, and in that role helped secure the escape of the royal family. He fought as a member of the Garde in the June Days uprising later that year, but was so shocked at the cruelty and the state of the rebel workers that he completely withdrew from political activity. In 1850, he married, and became a French citizen at last.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Heavenly and Earthly Love (1850), media and dimensions not known, Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Heavenly and Earthly Love from 1850 shows the change in his style which occurred after the February Revolution. Gone is the classical gloom, replaced by lucent colour. This shows the traditional theme of love sacred and profane, of course, which was perhaps a response to his marriage.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Christus Consolator (1851), oil on canvas, 65 x 87.6 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier in his career, Scheffer had painted some religious works, among them the first version of this painting, which had been widely acclaimed and turn into prints. He painted a second version of Christus Consolator in 1851, improved by his changing style. He may well have been prompted to revisit this following his experiences in 1848.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), The Temptation of Christ (1854), media and dimensions not known, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The Temptation of Christ from 1854 shows the apogee of his simplified and lighter work, with Satan trying to get Christ to jump from a pinnacle so that he could rely on angels to break his fall – one of the three temptations during Jesus’ forty days spent in the wilderness after his baptism by John.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld (1855), oil on canvas, 171 x 239 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante was another of Scheffer’s favourite literary sources, and it was perhaps inevitable that he should paint Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld (1855). The two adulterous lovers who were murdered by Francesca’s husband, Giovanni Malatesta, after being caught making love, are shown in their eternal whirlwind in the second circle of hell, reserved for the lustful. Scheffer shows a wound on Paolo’s chest as a reminder of their violent deaths.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Greek Exiles on a Rock, Staring at Their Lost Homeland (date not known), oil on canvas, 40.5 x 32 cm, Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

The last and undated painting I have for Scheffer shows Greek Exiles on a Rock, Staring at Their Lost Homeland. Although this continues his theme of the tragic consequences of the struggle for Greek independence prior to 1829, this account seems more typical of his style towards the end of his career.

In the late 1850s Scheffer was slowed down by a heart condition, and what he painted remained in his studio; he had ceased exhibiting at the Salon in 1846. He died in his summer house at Argenteuil – a favourite area for the later Impressionists – on 15 June 1858.