Bewitched: Paintings of witches 2

Fritz Roeber (1851-1924), Walpurgis Night Scene from 'Faust' (c 1910), oil on canvas, 186 x 206 cm, Museum Abtei Liesborn, Wadersloh, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles showing paintings of witches and their dark arts and crafts, I reached the early nineteenth century, a period in which these subjects had become popular in literature, music, and the visual arts.

Antoine Wiertz (1806–1865), The Young Sorceress (1857), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Le Musée Antoine Wiertz, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

Antoine Wiertz, an idiosyncratic Belgian painter, showed an interest in the occult and visually bizarre. The Young Sorceress (1857) is a very late depiction of the long-standing fable of witchcraft: the young woman is here astride her broomstick, being egged on by the spells of the old and wizened witch behind.

In Britain in particular, Arthurian legends became one of the central themes of the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates. Morgan le Fay, also known as Morganna, Fata Morgana, and other variants, is generally taken to be King Arthur’s sister or half-sister, and at least an enchantress if not a full-blown witch or ‘fay’, a fairy.

She marries King Urien, and at times is recognised as a queen alongside Queen Guinevere. However, there is no love lost between Morgan and Guinevere, and Morgan repeatedly schemes unsuccessfully to usurp Arthur’s throne. Late in Arthur’s life, the siblings are reconciled, and it’s Morgan who accompanies Arthur on his final voyage to Avalon, where she becomes its immortal queen.

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Morgan-le-Fay (1863-64), oil on wood panel, 61.8 cm x 43.7 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederick Sandys’ Morgan-le-Fay from 1863-64 casts her as an alchemist-sorceress, working on mysterious spells, but without the classical references. Behind her is a large weaving loom, which may be a reference to other stories such as that of the Lady of Shalott.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), The Incantation (c 1878), tempera, watercolour, pen and ink, 32 x 18 cm, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Another eccentric Belgian artist, Félicien Rops, conjured with various images of devils and witches. One of his more gentle paintings of the occult is The Incantation (c 1878).

A Faustian character sits in front of an open copy of Compendium Maleficarum, a witch-hunter’s manual first published in Latin in 1608. He’s surrounded by the tools of his trade: alembics, a sprig of mandrake, a pelican, an owl, and a black cat is behind his chair. He has just conjured up a naked young woman, who is popping out of a picture frame. It all seems good fun, as if witchcraft was a hobby for every family.

The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Magic Circle (1886), oil on canvas, 182.9 x 127 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1886), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

In John William Waterhouse’s Magic Circle from 1886, a barefoot witch or sorceress draws a blazing circle in the dust around her, as smoke and steam rises vertically. In her left hand she holds a golden sickle. Outside her magic circle are half a dozen ravens or crows spectating, perhaps waiting to be turned back into humans.

In France, one of the Nabis, Paul Ranson, declared an interest in the occult early in his career.

Paul Ranson (1861–1909), Witches around the Fire (1891), oil on canvas, 38 x 65 cm, Musée départemental Maurice Denis “The Priory”, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Ranson’s Witches around the Fire from 1891 is an example of this recurrent theme in which he showed visions of witches’ ‘sabbaths’ with erotic undertones.

Paul Ranson (1861–1909), Witch with a Black Cat (1893), oil on canvas, 90 x 72 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of years later, his Witch with a Black Cat from 1893 is more decorative.

Fritz Roeber (1851-1924), Walpurgis Night Scene from ‘Faust’ (c 1910), oil on canvas, 186 x 206 cm, Museum Abtei Liesborn, Wadersloh, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Goethe’s Faust remained popular well into the twentieth century. Fritz Roeber’s Walpurgis Night Scene from ‘Faust’ from about 1910 shows Gretchen standing in white, with her eyes shut tight. To the left of her are Mephistopheles, in red, and Faust. They are surrounded by flying witches holding pitchforks, and in the background are the rocky slopes of the Brocken.

By this time witches were firmly ensconced even in children’s literature. L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featured them in 1900, as did the first in C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.