Painting Goethe’s Faust: 2 A pact with the devil

Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910), Flight of Faust and Mephistopheles (1896), oil on canvas, 290 x 240 cm, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Faust and his student Wagner had been walking out in the Spring sunshine on Easter Day when they came across a large black dog, which followed them back into Faust’s study. Once there, Faust tries to speak a monologue to biblical text in Greek, but keeps interrupting himself to tell the dog off for its misbehaviour. Then the dog starts to transform, growing in length.

The voices of spirits outside are heard, while inside Faust tries to cast a spell to halt the transformation of the dog. This fails, and just as the dog seems about to fill the room, Mephistopheles steps out from behind the stove, and the dog simultaneously vanishes in a cloud of mist. He is dressed as a mediaeval wandering student, and engages Faust in conversation.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring (1910–1994), Des Pudels Kern (The Dog Transforms) (1960), waiercolour, 21 x 30 cm, Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen. Image by Peter Mauch, courtesy of Margret Hofheinz-Döring/ Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen, via Wikimedia Commons.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring appears to have been the only artist who has painted this very visual moment, in her watercolour of Des Pudels Kern, which I think means roughly The Dog Transforms, from 1960.

Faust asks who this student is, and Mephistopheles evades, hints, and puns around the theme of the devil, bringing Faust to dismiss him. At that, Mephistopheles excuses himself, and promises to return another day. However, his departure is prevented by an incompletely-drawn pentagram on the floor. By this time, Faust is beginning to enjoy their verbal sparring, and asks Mephistopheles to stay and chat.

Mephistopheles agrees to stay, promising that Faust will enjoy great sensory delight in his dreams that night. Spirits then provide a commentary to Faust’s dreaming.

Luis Ricardo Falero (1851–1896), Faust’s Vision (1880), oil on canvas, 81.2 x 150.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

I think that this is the passage to which Luis Ricardo Falero’s Faust’s Vision from 1880 refers. A torrent of very naked young women flow through the air past the sleeping Faust, as Mephistopheles conjures them up for him.

After this, Faust awakes, but with memories of the devil, and a dog that ran away from him.

At the start of the next scene, Faust is still in his study when there is a knock at the door. In comes Mephistopheles, now dressed in scarlet cavalier’s clothing, a hat with a single long feather, and a rapier. Faust pours out his heart to him, telling of his weariness with the world.

To this, Mephistopheles makes Faust an offer: a partnership in which he, the devil, will be his servant and ensure Faust’s perpetual pleasure. Faust asks what Mephistopheles wants in return, to which he gets an evasive answer. Mephistopheles then states that, when they meet again after Faust’s death, Faust will be a servant to the devil in return. Faust considers this repayment in kind of little consequence, as it will be in the next world, not this one.

After more negotiation, Faust proposes that, should he ever become so contented with a pleasure provided by Mephistopheles that he wants it to linger, then that is the moment that he should die.

The two agree this, and Mephistopheles asks Faust to commit this to writing, signed in his own blood, which he does.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Faust in his Study (study) (c 1831), watercolour and gouache on paper, dimensions not known, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Ary Scheffer’s first study for a painting showing the pair together at about this time in the play is this watercolour of Faust in his Study made in about 1831. It seems to have been some years before he turned that into the finished oil painting below, which has been dated to about 1840.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Faust in his Study (c 1840), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Here Faust appears Christ-like, and Mephistopheles is the devil incarnate, implying an unusual reading of Goethe’s play.

Julius Nisle (1812-1850), Faust’s pact with Mephisto (c 1840), engraving, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

A much more conventional depiction of the pair striking their bargain is Julius Nisle’s engraving of Faust’s Pact with Mephisto from about 1840. Mephistopheles holds in his left hand the written agreement, signed in Faust’s blood, and they shake hands on this contract.

Anton Kaulbach (1864–1934), Faust and Mephistopheles (c 1900), oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Anton Kaulbach’s Faust and Mephistopheles from about 1900 it is Faust who clutches the contract he made with the devil, with a visual reference to Faust’s earlier dream and Mephistopheles’ promises, in the form of an out-of-focus naked woman dancing behind them.

Even after they have agreed their pact and Faust has signed up to it, Mephistopheles continues to tease him with promises of how wonderful their partnership will be. Faust asks how they should start, to which Mephistopheles tells him to let his academic colleagues do his teaching for once, letting him get on with the pleasures of life.

At that point, a student is heard outside the door. Faust says that he can’t see him, so Mephistopheles dresses up as Faust and misguides the student thoroughly in their interview. Before the student leaves, he asks Mephistopheles for his signature in his autograph book. The devil signs with the words:
“Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum” meaning “you will be like God, knowing good and evil”.
These are the words of the Vulgate translation of the Old Testament, and are those spoken by the snake when tempting Adam and Eve.

The student leaves, and Faust returns, asking where they should go, and how. Mephistopheles spreads his cloak and the pair fly off through the air to Auerbach’s Tavern in Leipzig.

Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910), Flight of Faust and Mephistopheles (1896), oil on canvas, 290 x 240 cm, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Mikhail Vrubel’s wonderful painting of the Flight of Faust and Mephistopheles from 1896 elaborates the simplicity described by Mephistopheles, with them each mounted on a horse – perhaps one of those readied for the apocalypse? – and flying over a sleeping town.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Mephistopheles in the Sky (1828), lithograph, 48.2 x 32 cm, Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

But probably the best-known depiction of Mephistopheles in flight is Eugène Delacroix’s lithograph of Mephistopheles in the Sky from his set of illustrations made in 1828.

The next article in this series starts in Auerbach’s Tavern, with Mephistopheles taking his ‘master’ to pleasure there.