Figure painting was the dominant genre in Corinth's work. He painted himself, his family and friends, as well as models, commissioned portraits and mythological or biblical subjects. He regularly imbued his figures with a sense of drama and psychological depth. In 1911 he suffered partial paralysis as the result of a stroke. This led to dramatic changes in his painting style, and later works, such as this one, have a characteristically agitated and expressionistic brushwork.
The popular image of St Mary Magdalen conflates three biblical figures. The most significant is Mary of Magdala, whom Christ cleansed of seven demons (Luke 8:2, Mark 16:9), and who accompanied and ministered to Him in Galilee (Luke 8:1-2), witnessed His Crucifixion and burial (all Gospel accounts) and was the first person to see Him resurrected (Mark 16:9-10 & John 20:14-17). The other related figures are Mary of Bethany, who annointed Christ's feet and wiped them with her hair (John 12:3-17); and an unnamed woman who did the same (Luke 7:37-48) and whose sins Christ pardoned as a result. Although there is no biblical authority for the description of Mary Magdalen as a reformed prostitute, the legend has been long-standing, and many artists have seen her as providing an opportunity to display the female body. At times of anxiety about the prevalence of prostitution, she has also been used to symbolise the perceived threat of untamed female sexuality.
Corinth painted Mary Magdalen a number of times but never as dramatically as in this work. Here the figure fills the small canvas from edge to edge, generating a compositional energy and intensity. Areas of light and shadow are strikingly contrasted, and brightly coloured highlights are used to enliven the flesh tones. A sense of movement is generated through the contrasting directions of the Magdalen's pose and the brushstrokes behind. The look on her face and the placement of her splayed hand on her chest suggest a sudden expression of regret or anxiety, and her eyes look swollen, as if from crying. The skull in the lower right hand corner of the painting is a traditional reminder of mortality. Set in direct contrast with the Magdalen's head, it emphasises both the inevitable passing of beauty and the ephemerality of sensual pleasure. The pearls on her wrist and in her hair can also be seen as references to the decadence of her earlier life.
It is not known exactly where Corinth painted this work but during 1919 he divided his time between his homes in Berlin and Bavaria.
Charlotte Berend-Corinth, Die Gemälde von Lovis Corinth. Werkverzeichnis, Munich 1992, catalogue no. 758, reproduced p.737
Uhr Horst, Lovis Corinth, Berkeley 1990
Lovis Corinth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, catalogue no.128, p.243, reproduced in colour