Theodor von Holst

Fantasy Based on Goethe’s ‘Faust’


Not on display

Theodor von Holst 1810–1844
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1116 × 757 mm
frame: 1325 × 962 × 80 mm
Purchased 1990

Display caption

Holst was the son of a Latvian music master who settled in London in 1807. In the 1820s he became a pupil of Fuseli, and like him specialised in literary subjects with an emphasis on the macabre and supernatural. This picture seems to relate to the legend of Faust, as retold by the German romantic playwright Goethe in his great poetic drama published in two parts in 1808 and 1832. Faust is a late medieval scholar with a thirst for ultimate knowledge who enters into a pact with the Devil, thereby pledging his soul. The daemonic figure to the left is perhaps identifiable as Faust's companion, Mephistopheles, an agent of Hell, perhaps participating in the witches' Sabbath during Walpurgis Night.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

This oil painting has some unusual technical features, the first being the use of striped cotton mattress ticking as the support. It is visible through the dark translucent paint in the background. Von Holst appears not to have put a priming on the support but instead began the composition by painting the whole striped surface a uniform dark brown; it remains visible as the demon in the top right corner and in the other dark areas it was later intensified with paint of a similar colour. Its shrunken appearance indicates a resinous or bituminous composition; these additives, which would have made the dark oil paint appear richer and more translucent, do not make stable paint films and for this reason they were normally kept for the later stages of the work.

The image was done mainly in opaque mixtures, applied at first in thin scumbles to indicate the form, then worked up wet-in-wet with thicker, more buttery paint, applied with flat and pointed brushes in quick expressive strokes. Generally the composition evolved from dark to light, though some of the impasto was glazed over to modify a tone or alter an outline.

The unstable brown underlayer has caused a certain amount of disruption in the image; most of the darks have the characteristic 'knobbly' appearance of bituminous paint, and many of the opaque mid-tones appear darker and less cohesive from the fine network of linear drying cracks that has developed within them. An abrasive clean sometime in the past has left the background paint slightly abraded, but other than that the painting is in good condition. It has a glue lining and an adjustable wooden stretcher, which probably date from the later decades of the nineteenth century. The varnish is a modern synthetic resin.

RIca Jones

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