Painting Goethe’s Faust: 5 Gretchen’s fall

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Margarete in the Church (1844), oil on panel, 62 x 39.5 cm, locations not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In scene nineteen, Faust has seduced the innocent young Gretchen, and now intends consummating his lust that night. He provides her with a potion which he claims will ensure that her mother will sleep soundly, assuring her that it is safe.

Scene twenty is set some time later, as Gretchen and a friend go to the well to fill their water-jugs. Her friend asks Gretchen whether she has heard about a mutual friend, Barbara, who she reveals has had an illegitimate child. Gretchen expresses her sympathy for Barbara’s predicament, but her friend is hard-hearted and blames Barbara for her foolishness and immorality.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Margarete at the Fountain (1858), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Ary Scheffer is one of the few artists who have depicted this, in his Margarete at the Fountain, thought to have been completed shortly before the artist’s early death in 1858. Although he introduces an additional woman at the well, Gretchen’s face says it all.

Gretchen walks back musing to herself that Barbara’s sin is now her sin too.

Gretchen is seen next at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary as Mater Dolorosa, Our Lady of Sorrows. Having placed some flowers on the statue, she prays for the Virgin’s help in her anguish, a moment which has proved popular with visual artists.

Peter von Cornelius (1783–1867), Gretchen in Front of the Mater Dolorosa (c 1815), illustration engraved by Ferdinand Ruscheweyh, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter von Cornelius’ early illustration of Gretchen in Front of the Mater Dolorosa from about 1815 follows Goethe’s text closely. She is seen kneeling and wiping her tears. The stork at the right may be a reference to pregnancy: the bird is implicated in the delivery of babies in various European folk tales.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805–1874), Gretchen in Front of the Mater Dolorosa (date not known), illustration, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s undated Gretchen in Front of the Mater Dolorosa shows Gretchen in greater grief, kneeling and bowed. Through the arch are three women at a well, perhaps in a composite of the previous scene.

Adam Vogler (1822-1856), Gretchen Before the Statue of the Virgin Mary (date not known), oil on canvas, 76.5 x 57 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Adam Vogler’s undated painting of Gretchen Before the Statue of the Virgin Mary shows her in a more contemplative sorrow.

The next scene takes place outside Gretchen’s house, at night, when her enlisted brother turns up. He says that he used to extol his sister’s virtue, but now that her reputation has been destroyed he is being taunted for her immoral behaviour. Faust and Mephistopheles then arrive. They are discussing a buried hoard of silver which Mephistopheles has stolen for Faust to give to Gretchen.

When Mephistopheles sings, accompanying himself on a zither, Gretchen’s brother leaps out and challenges them. A sword-fight ensues, in which Faust, with the devil’s help, mortally wounds the brother. The two men hurry away, leaving him on the roadside where he fell.

Gretchen and Martha look out of their houses. A crowd has already gathered, and tells Gretchen that there’s a body, that of her brother, who isn’t yet dead. He tells his sister that she’s now a whore and a slut, and predicts her downfall from sin, before dying in front of her.

Gretchen next attends a mass for the dead, presumably her brother, at the cathedral. She is there taunted by an evil spirit, who reveals that the sleeping potion which Gretchen had given her mother had killed the woman. These thoughts distress Gretchen greatly, who feels that the organ music is choking her. Following further taunts from the spirit, Gretchen faints.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Margarete in Church (1828), lithograph, 26 x 22 cm, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Delacroix’s lithograph of Margarete in Church, from his 1828 series of illustrations, personifies the evil spirit, showing Gretchen as she starts to feel faint.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Margarete in the Church (1844), oil on panel, 62 x 39.5 cm, locations not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Ary Scheffer’s Margarete in the Church from 1844, Gretchen is dressed in the black of mourning, for her brother or mother perhaps, and instead of looking ahead she stares straight at the viewer. There is no sign of the spirit which causes her to faint.

Scheffer first painted this scene in 1832, and the following year exhibited that larger work at the Salon, but it has since been lost. This is one of several later versions which he made, probably commissioned by dealers.

Faust: Margaret in the Church 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Margaret in the Church (1848), ink on paper, 17.8 x 12.1 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s early ink drawing of Margaret in the Church, from 1848, may be mistitled, as it seems to show Gretchen kneeling in prayer by a statue of the Virgin Mary, although not a regular Mater Dolorosa. Behind her is what is most probably the evil spirit, which suggests that this might be a composite of Goethe’s scenes.

James Tissot (1836–1902), Marguerite in Church (c 1861), oil on canvas, 50.2 × 75.5 cm, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Wikimedia Commons.

In James Tissot’s Marguerite in Church from about 1861, Gretchen is cast in the role of the penitent Magdalene. Two innocent children kneel in front of a shrine, praying in a 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, anticipation of her fate.

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 also painted Marguerite Coming Out of the Church in 1838. This may show the sequel to the scene in the cathedral which is omitted by Goethe, as Gretchen emerges afterwards, with Faust and Mephistopheles waiting for her. Alternatively, this could be an idiosyncratic account of Gretchen and Faust’s first meeting.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), Faust and Marguerite (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s undated painting shows Faust and Marguerite emerging from the cathedral, as Mephistopheles skulks behind the monument in the churchyard, looking more an alter ego or doppelgänger than a demon.

Shortly afterwards, Faust and Mephistopheles set off to celebrate Walpurgis Night in the Hartz Mountains.