Painting Goethe’s Faust: 9 The story of Gretchen by Ary Scheffer & James Tissot

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Faust at Walpurgis Night (c 1840-50), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Two great nineteenth-century narrative painters depicted many scenes from Goethe’s Faust Part One: Ary Scheffer and James Tissot. In my previous account of the tragedy of Gretchen, I have shown many of their works, and here I gather them together in what might be their first virtual exhibition.

I apologise for the fact that some of these images are small, and not up to my usual standard, but they are the best that I could find.

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 fascination for Faust started quite early in the century, with this watercolour study for a painting showing Faust and Mephistopheles together, 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.

Scheffer completed this soon after the publication of the second part of Goethe’s play. Faust appears Christ-like, and Mephistopheles is the devil incarnate.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Faust with the Cup of Poison (1858), oil on canvas, 162.5 x 102.5 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer didn’t paint this sequel, showing Faust contemplating suicide, in Faust with the Cup of Poison until 1858, the year of his death.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Margarete and Martha and the Jewellery Box (c 1840-50), media and dimensions not known, Dordrechtsmuseum, Dordrecht, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Most of Scheffer’s other paintings of the tragedy were completed between 1840-50, including his Margarete and Martha and the Jewellery Box, which shows Gretchen and her neighbour examining the jewels which Mephistopheles left on the behalf of Faust. At the far left, the devil is making his entrance.

I have omitted one painting of Gretchen at her spinning wheel, as I can only find it watermarked with a copyright claim.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (The Seduction) (1846), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

His painting of Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (The Seduction) from 1846 captures this scene masterfully, with the dreamy Gretchen and Faust almost dancing together, as Martha tries to interest Mephistopheles in herself rather than the young couple.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Margarete at the Fountain (1858), oil on canvas, 160 x 101 cm, The Wallace Collection, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer’s Margarete at the Fountain, is another work thought to have been completed shortly before the artist’s death in 1858. He introduces an additional woman at the well, and Gretchen’s face says it all.

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

Scheffer first painted this scene of Margarete in the Church in 1832, making it probably his first finished work based on Faust, and the following year exhibited it at the Salon. That painting has since been lost, and this, made in 1844, is one of several later versions which he made, probably commissioned by dealers.

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.

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’s rather puzzling painting of Marguerite Coming Out of the Church dates from 1838. This may show a sequel to the scene in the cathedral which was omitted by Goethe, as Gretchen emerges afterwards, with Faust and Mephistopheles waiting for her. Alternatively, this could perhaps be an idiosyncratic account of Gretchen and Faust’s first meeting.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Faust at Walpurgis Night (c 1840-50), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The final painting in Scheffer’s series which I have been able to locate shows Faust at Walpurgis Night, and was also painted during 1840-50. This shows Faust looking at the spectre of Gretchen, who appears clutching her newborn baby.

I believe that James Tissot painted several scenes from Faust in 1860-61, but have only been able to locate images of three.

James Tissot (1836–1902), Faust Meets Marguerite (study) (c 1860), oil on canvas, 15.5 x 22 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The best-known painting of the introduction of Gretchen into Goethe’s play is that by James Tissot in the Musée d’Orsay. I haven’t been able to locate an image of that work, Faust Meets Marguerite, which dates from 1860, but that above is a decidedly painterly signed study for it.

James Tissot (1836-1902), Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (1861), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (1861) is based on Gounod’s operatic retelling, and shows the couple sat talking together on a bench, still quite distant, with Gretchen looking intently at a daisy she is holding. She pulls the petals off the daisy with the childhood words ‘he loves me, he loves me not’, and when she removes the last petal rejoices in saying “he loves me!”

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 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, anticipating her fate.

I find it strange that so few paintings show the climax of Part One.

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929), Marguerite at the Sabbath (1911), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée municipal de Cognac, Cognac, France. Wikimedia Commons.

To round off this overview, and conclude this series, I have to show Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret’s Marguerite at the Sabbath from 1911. It is a dramatic composite in which Gretchen is lit by the bonfires of Walpurgis Night, and clutches the limp body of her baby.

I hope that you have enjoyed these articles.