Faust and Mephistopheles on the Blocksberg
Brush and grey and black ink over pencil on vellum
Inv. No. 16758
24.5 × 18.5 cm
Among the most important interpretations of Goethe’s Faust in the realm of the visual arts are those produced by the French artist Eugène Delacroix while he was still a young man. It was not his perusal of the text, which was published in 1808, but the experience of attending a theatrical performance in London, where he spent the summer of 1825, that prompted his concern with this literary subject matter. Delacroix provided the lithographs to accompany the text of the Faust translation by Albert Stapfer, published by Charles Motte of Paris in 1828. Between 1825 and 1827 he carried out individual studies and brush drawings in preparation for a total of seventeen illustrations.
Executed in a painterly manner, this scene is based on the opening of the Walpurgis Night scene in Faust. Following the will-o’-the-wisp, Faust and Mephistopheles make the steep ascent to the Brocken to witness the Witches’ Sabbath. A diagonal dominates the composition and enhances the drama of the events. The agitated gesture with which Mephistopheles urges his companion on reinforces the sense of their hasty upward climb through difficult terrain where they must constantly seek footholds and handholds. Using painterly devices that heighten the eeriness of the scene, the artist contrives to make the depiction of nature – the lightning, the uncanny glow and the wreaths of mist, the coiling tree roots and diabolical creatures underfoot – into a soundboard for the fateful psychological constellation of the two characters, who are shown here caught between ascent and the imminent danger of plummeting to the depths.
This work reveals an affinity that is unusual in French artists of Delacroix’s generation – it has obviously been influenced by the art of Goya, particularly by the Caprichos, which appeared in 1799. This can be seen in the ambivalence between concrete depiction and ambiguous expression in Delacroix’s pictorial interpretations, which reject the rigid forms of classicism and offer scope to the subjective imagination.
Whereas Cornelius, whose Faust cycle had been published only a few years earlier, had paid more attention to the moral aspects of the plot, Delacroix is interested in its psychological dimension. It is his ability to give artistic expression to this personal perspective that accounts for the incomparable quality of his contribution to the Faust material, a quality that was recognized by Goethe himself: »Monsieur Delacroix … is a man of great talent, and Faust provided exactly the right nourishment for that talent. … And if I must now acknowledge that Monsieur Delacroix has surpassed my own imagination in scenes that I created myself, how much more will readers find that it all comes to life and goes beyond anything that they can imagine!« (Conversations with Eckermann, 29.11.1826).