In the last few days, I showed a couple of paintings by Ary Scheffer which are based on the ‘Gothic’ Romantic ballad Lenore, by the German author Gottfried August Bürger, published in 1774. Here is a more extensive survey of the paintings and other visual works of art based on that story, shown in the context of its narrative.
It is 1757, and Frederick the Great’s Prussian army has forced the Austrian forces to retreat in the Battle of Prague, but suffered heavy casualties. Lenore is a young Prussian woman engaged to marry William, who went to that battle to fight for King Frederick. Having heard no news about him, she eagerly awaits the army’s return.
Scheffer’s painting, Lenore – The Return of the Army, shows Lenore in the centre, surrounded by other couples reuniting. Her fiancé William is nowhere to be seen, and she is left with just her mother for company.
Lenore then starts to quarrel with God, complaining bitterly of his unfairness to her. Her mother apologises to God for her daughter’s blasphemy, and tells Lenore that William has probably found another woman in Hungary, so she would do best to forget him.
At midnight there is a knock at the door. A mysterious stranger, who looks just like the missing William, invites Lenore 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.
Three different translations of this ballad were published in Britain in 1796. One of them, a free adaption by J T Stanley, was illustrated by the great William Blake. This is probably an original watercolour of his for one of the plates, showing William inviting Lenore to accompany him out to his horse, as her mother looks on in concern.
A second translation published that same year by William Robert Spencer featured engravings by Edward Harding of a series of paintings made by Lady Diana Beauclerk. This shows William in his armour, waiting for Lenore to join him on his horse.
When Lenore asks William why they are travelling at such a furious pace, he replies that the dead travel fast, an enigmatic phrase which could form the title of the many works showing the couple riding through the night.
When the sky starts to lighten with the dawn, they arrive at the gates to a cemetery. As they pass among its tombstones, William transforms into the figure of Death, a skeleton complete with his scythe and hourglass.
Lady Beauclerk’s illustrations show this sequence particularly well.
First, they are pursued by the spirits of the dead, driving the couple to increase their pace.
Just before the cemetery, they come across a funeral procession, and William points towards the cemetery gate.
Once inside, Lenore swoons as William becomes Death himself, here holding an outsize arrow to point down at an open grave.
Blake’s frontispiece, Lenore, Clasping her Spectral Bridegroom shows the dead travelling fast indeed. Amazingly, the critics praised Lady Beauclerk’s illustrations and slated those of Blake. As a result, the Blake version is now exceptionally rare, and little-known.
Johann David Schubert’s drawing of Leonore from about 1800 shows the couple crossing a bridge. In common with all other artists prior to the pioneer photographic studies by Edweard Muybridge in 1872-78, the horse is shown at the gallop with its forelegs and hindlegs extended clear of the ground, as it flies over the small bridge.
Ary Scheffer’s horse is likewise fully extended and clear of the ground. In the gloom around them are ghostly figures.
This monochrome image shows what I believe is a full-colour painting by Louis Boulanger from 1832, which I think has been titled incorrectly as Witch’s Sabbath, but clearly shows William and Lenore being pursued by winged daemons.
Horace Vernet, in The Ballad of Lenore, or The Dead Travel Fast from 1839, shows William transforming into the figure of Death, as the horse crosses tombs in the graveyard.
Alfred W Elmore’s nightmare vision of Lenore from 1871 is set on the coast, where ghostly figures are being washed with waves. In front of the horse is a winged angel burying its face in its hands.
Although Gustave Moreau doesn’t mention Lenore by name, his brilliant watercolour of The Ballad from 1885 clearly shows the couple galloping through the night.
Another monochrome photograph of a full-colour painting, Frank Kirchbach’s The Ballad of Lenore from 1896 was engraved by Theodore Knesing and sold as a print. William has here transformed into Death a little early, as they are only just flying over the cemetery gate, and somehow Lenore has become partially undressed.
Once inside the graveyard, Lenore realises that their promised marriage bed is in fact the open grave of William, whose skeleton rests there alongside 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 clings onto the hope of forgiveness.
For the nineteenth century painter, this ballad must have been guaranteed success: widely-translated, popular throughout Europe, a blend of romance and horror with a surprise ending, and above all a satisfying moral.