Departure of the Witches, 1878
Like his Muse of the Night (1880), Luis Ricardo Faléro’s “Departure of the Witches” is signed and dated but not titled: so it has a number of modern names. (Given the subject-matter it is no surprise that this painting is now known as the “Vision de Faust” or “Faust’s Vision,” though I prefer “Departure of the Witches” for obvious reasons.) It has also changed hands twice in recent years.
The painting was referred to in Master Painters of the World. Biography, Art Education and Art Work of One Hundred & Eighteen World-renowned Artists, with … Reproductions of Their Famous Paintings (Chicago: The White City Art Co., 1902) [available online here]:
Another example of the fantastic invention of Luis Falero is presented in “The Departure of the Witches.” This is a section from one of his famous pictures whose suggestion he derived from his studies of the Faust legend, and is a composition worthy of those creative geniuses in ancient art who followed the lead of Holbein and made “The Dance of Death” a vehicle for the free fling of their fecund imagination. The idea is, of course, that the witches and warlocks and their hideous attendants making their annual aerial flight to their common congregation place upon the Brocken, as veraciously detailed in the old legend.
This large canvas (145.5cm x 118.2cm [57 1/4 x 46 1/4 inches]) has appeared at auction twice this millennium: on 18 October 2000 and 28 October 2003. The most recent of these was as lot 85 at Sotheby’s New York sale of “19th Century European Art including The Great 19th Century Ateliers: Ingres to Bouguereau” [Sale: N07930] with an estimate of 100—150,000 USD.
The Sotheby’s catalogue (online) tells us that the painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1880 [no. 380] and that it has been discussed by Francis Jourdain in “L’art officiel de Jules Grevy à Albert Lebrun,” Le Point, revue artistique et littéraire [Paris] 37 (April 1949): 14 (where it is illustrated). The Sotheby’s catalogue continues:
Luis Falero trained in Paris as a portraitist and developed a fascination for painting highly detailed renderings of the female nude. His hyper-realist style often set women in fantastical or mythologic settings, which gave Falero the freedom to explore wild scenes of otherwise indecorous subjects. Vision de Faust, like other examples of Falero’s best work, was awarded entry into the Salon and the artist was much admired for his engrossing visions.
The Faust legend, immortalized for European culture by Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, enjoyed renewed interest for 19th century society due to the popular Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Marlowe’s Faust, in Renaissance style, was a morality play in which the pride of a tragic hero causes his downfall. For the nineteenth-century Romantic, however, Faust became a new type of hero, whose rebellious desire to experience the breadth of life, including its forbidden behaviors, was considered the greatest of human achievements. Virtue, for 19th century culture, lay in an unending pursuit of life’s unknowns, due in part to the prodigious efforts of Goethe.
Falero’s Vision de Faust presents Faust’s dream as he experiences an adventure through the Satanic realm where witches and demons journey to a communal gathering. Satan, or Mephistopheles, was seen by the Romantics as the dark shadow that enabled humans to see the brilliance of heavenly light; only by knowing the depth of his darkness, could one appreciate the greatness of the light. The faces and striking poses of Falero’s demonic women bring the darkness to an entrancing level of detail, a truly captivating vision.
Falero’s “highly detailed renderings” of spectacularly attractive witches are unlikely suggest demonic forces to a modern audience, even if Faust and Mephistopheles were present in the painting to provide a theological context. Modern Western societies value beauty over almost every moral attribute, we strive to be beautiful and we reward the beauty of others.
So, if Venus were to take pity on the admirers of this painting—as she did on Pygmalion—and bring Falero’s sexy witches to life, they would step out of this canvas, in front of a camera, and be set for life! (And we would have another representative of Venus to read about in Who every week.)
[UPDATE 9 May 2009: to see all my Luis Ricardo Faléro Pages see here.]