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Philipp Winterwerb

Faust in his Study

Oil on canvas

Monogrammed at bottom right: Ph. W

Winterwerb’s invention turns on the moment when Faust, in a state of inner turmoil and plagued by doubts that neither his interest in science nor his study of theology can allay, opens his mind to new lines of inquiry. His search for the meaning of the world, for what “binds creation’s inmost energies,”1 leads him to magic and to the “book of mystery”2 by Nostradamus, in which the “sign of the Macrocosmos”3 catches his eye, sparking another series of questions:4

Was it a god who character’d this scroll, The tumult in my spirit healing, O’er my sad heart with rapture stealing, And by a mystic impulse, to my soul, The powers of nature all around revealing?

The study in which the literary figure of Faust holds his famous monologue and meets Mephisto for the first time is generally imagined as a work of Gothic architecture, equipped with the requisite folio and death’s head as well as the usual alchemist’s props. Winterwerb, however, dispenses with any such detailed rendering of the interior, which here is so dimly lit that much of it is barely visible at all. He also uses the fall of light to steer the viewer’s gaze onto Faust’s head, hands and book, thus highlighting the mental and spiritual journey on which he has embarked. The protagonist’s upward gaze identifies him as a man in search of answers, who has not yet noticed the figure of Mephistopheles, clad ominously in red, looming up behind him. As might be expected of a painter who was known mainly as a portraitist, Winterwerb’s Faust has many of the qualities of a true likeness.5 The extent to which he was drawing on older models is impossible to gauge, based on what little we know of his own biography, although there is certainly evidence of a preoccupation with the figure of Faust in both Dutch and German art of the seventeenth century.6 The scholar in his study was also a familiar trope of the nineteenth-century canon of motifs7 – at least after 1808, when Goethe’s Faust was first published.

  1. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Faust. Part One, trans. Anna Swanwick, Dover Publications, New York 1994, “Night,” p. 15.

  2. Ibid., p. 16.

  3. Mercury stands in the middle with Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, sun and moon arranged concentrically around it.

  4. Faust, ibid. p. 17.

  5. Winterwerb was a student of Jakob Becker and Eduard von Steinle at the Städelsche Kunstinstitut. His fine portraits were rated highly in Frankfurt society, which is probably why most of his works these days are still in private collections.

  6. As in Rembrandt’s work, A Scholar in his Study. As an etching the motif was widely circulated.

  7. Cf. Georg Friedrich Kersting, Faust im Studierzimmer, 1829

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