Narrative painters in the nineteenth century seldom painted contemporary stories, taken from the great and popular authors of that century, such as Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, or Émile Zola. The exception to this is Goethe’s Faust, which was first published in 1808. By the middle of the century, it had acquired the status of a classic, and depictions were deemed fit for even the most academic of narrative artists.
Faust as published by Goethe isn’t a novel or epic poem, but a play written in rhyming verse. It comes in two parts: the first, which is the more familiar, was published in final form in 1828-29, and tells the story of Faust, his pact with the devil, and Faust’s lover Margarete or Gretchen (a familiar form of the name).
Part two tells of a series of fantastic adventures of Faust in five acts, which are far less well-known and seldom shown in art. They were not published until 1832, the year after Goethe’s death.
The story of Faust has ancient historical antecedents which include Simon the Sorceror of the first century CE, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, in the New Testament. There are possible historical links to a figure named Johann Georg Faust who is thought to have lived between about 1480-1540, whose reprobate life was recorded in a small chapbook (a booklet) published in 1587.
In about 1604, the British playwright Christopher Marlowe published a play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, based on an English version of the chapbook. Goethe’s play was the next major literary presentation of the story, and was followed by Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (1928-40), Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947), and others. The story has been told in operas by Charles Gounod, Hector Berlioz, and others, and in a succession of important movies starting with FW Murnau’s in 1926. It is generally accepted as Goethe’s masterwork, and the greatest work of German literature.
One theme in Faust is the eternal battle between good and evil, as in the figure of Faust himself. Introduced as God’s favourite human, he is striving to learn everything, but finding that scientific, humanities, and religious disciplines fall short. He therefore dabbles in magic and the occult. Faust strikes a bargain with the demon Mephistopheles, who does everything that Faust wants of him, in return for which Faust will serve the Devil on his death. If Faust is sufficiently pleased by what Mephistopheles does for him as to want to remain in any moment forever, then he will die.
The great narrative artist Ary Scheffer’s painting of Faust in his Study dates from about 1840, surprisingly soon after the publication of the second part of Goethe’s play. Faust appears Christ-like, and Mephistopheles is the devil incarnate.
Jean-Paul Laurens, perhaps the last of the academic narrative painters, saw Faust as a much older man in this undated portrait of him.
Anton Kaulbach’s Faust and Mephistopheles from about 1900 is a masterly study of facial contrasts, with the figure of a dancing nude woman as a cue to the story. Kaulbach appears to have used selective defocussing to give this work the impression of photographic depth.
Faust remains popular with modern artists. Margret Hofheinz-Döring’s painting of Faust talking with the Earth Spirit from 1969 is highly original, and in the pink swirls just below the centre she too suggests the nude figure of a woman, alluding to Gretchen.
Early in his career, the French artist James Tissot painted a series of works showing different scenes in Faust’s play, based on Gounod’s operatic retelling. Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (1861) shows the couple sat together on a bench, as Faust proceeds with her seduction.
With the help of Mephistopheles, Faust succeeds, and gets Gretchen pregnant.
Shunned and taunted by the locals, Gretchen resolves to go to church to repent her sins. The devil brings her visions of her previously happy life in an effort to prevent her from praying, and she faints in the struggle. Tissot here shows Marguerite in Church (c 1861) cast in the role of the penitent Magdalene.
Tissot skilfully weaves the story into his composition. Two innocent children kneel in front of a shrine, praying in the normal and obvious manner. Gretchen’s inner turmoil cannot bring her any closer to that shrine, or even to break herself out of her posture of dejection, eyes cast down, hands apart rather than held together in prayer. Above her is a painting of the Last Judgement, which anticipates her own fate.
Scheffer painted other scenes from the first part of Goethe’s play, including Marguerite Coming Out of the Church in 1838. Gretchen is seen here emerging from church, with Faust to the right and Mephistopheles at the right edge, their appearances in keeping with his portrait above.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema was another enthusiast, who painted this undated view of Faust and Marguerite emerging from a proper cathedral. Mephistopheles is skulking behind the monument in the churchyard, looking more an alter ego or doppelgänger than a demon.
Following this, Mephistopheles takes Faust into the Harz Mountains to be part of the witches’ celebrations of Walpurgis Night.
Goethe’s friend the polymath Carl Gustav Carus painted Faust in the Mountains in about 1821, but avoided allusions to Goethe’s story in the form of Mephistopheles or a Brocken spectre.
Eugène Delacroix painted a complete set of illustrations in ink on vellum around 1826. In Faust and Mephistopheles on the Blocksberg he shows the pair on the slopes of the Brocken or Blocksberg, the highest peak in the Harz, and the setting for the Sabbath of Walpurgis Night.
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret uses light for dramatic effect in his Marguerite at the Sabbath (1911). Gretchen is shown by the light of the bonfires, clutching the limp body of her baby.
Faust is a powerful story and has inspired many powerful paintings. I look forward to exploring them further with you over the coming weeks.