The dazzling etching titled Faust (1652), by master artist Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt depicts an inspiring moment of spiritual mystery. Produced during the latter part of his career, the composition diverges from Rembrandt’s largely theocentric oeuvre (primarily depicting celebrated religious figures) and instead, features the German folk legend called Dr. Faust. In popular literature, the folklore figure of Faust is based on the German Alchemist, Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540)—a peculiar man also involved in the practices of Astrology and magic during the German Renaissance. Today, the most widely-known portrayal of the quirky Doctor remains Goethe’s Faust (1831), a two-part play exploring themes of morality, spirituality and human error through the lenses of Faust’s unconventional life. A production that majorly contributed to the European Romantic movement in literature, Goethe describes the Doctor’s dealings with the Devil—Mephistopheles—who proposes an offer too magnificent for the disillusioned man to refuse. The proposition suggests that Mephistopheles must serve Faust on earth, facilitating a full life for the Doctor on a single condition—a moment should come that will enthrall Faust; a moment so magical that the man will desire it to last for an eternity—but if Faust is to bid the moment to stay, his soul will forevermore serve Mephistopheles. While the play came to fruition almost two centuries after Rembrandt’s death, interpretations of the folk-legend have remained surprisingly consistent since its emergence sometime in the 16th-century.
Rembrandt’s Faust captures the moment that the devil promised to the Doctor. The artist renders Faust in a three-quarter profile, his face turned away from viewers—creating a strikingly voyeuristic element to the piece, as if viewers are witnessing a private moment experienced by a man unknowing of their presence. Faust appears enchanted by a heavenly light hovering before him which encapsulates a disk adorned with symbols and religious abbreviations—one inscription reading, “INRI” (“Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”) in Latin. Paying utmost attention to detail, Rembrandt inserts a ghostly hand near the bottom right of the orb of light. Attached to the hand is a shadowy arm which fades at the shoulder into an indiscernible, phantom spectacle.
Goethe describes this seemingly indescribable moment of beauty,
If ever I to the moment shall say:
Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
Then you may forge your chains to bind me,
Then I will put my life behind me,
Then let them hear my death-knell toll,
Then from your labours you’ll be free,
The clock may stop, the clock-hands fall,
And time come to an end for me!
As illustrated by the author, Faust is unable to let his special moment pass. He enters into a state of complacency, submitting himself to the wills of Mephistopheles and surrenders his soul. Rembrandt’s use of light and dark to capture this tragically wonderful second of pure ecstasy adds an element of drama to an already dramatic story. While Faust is the protagonist in the story, Rembrandt’s bright rendering of the unearthly disk quite literally demonstrates Faust being overshadowed by the moment of perfection in which he was promised.
Here, the artist suggests that despite Faust’s genius, the Doctor is ultimately overtaken by his mortal whims and realizes much too late that he is forever unable to match the ghastly power of the devil. Instead, the Doctor must accept his mortal fate and Rembrandt conveys this dilemma through his insertion of earthly objects—a skull shown near the left middle margin of the composition; a globe sitting on the bottom right corner; the work table which Faust leans on—juxtaposed with the transcendent light of the globe.
In many ways, Faust’s plight is timeless. The Doctor’s quest for knowledge and immortality compels him to make an unfavorable decision that ultimately leads to his demise. Though, he initially makes said decision due to his desire to bring goodness into the world. A rather relatable character, Faust survives as a metaphor concerning the nature of human error and remains a prolific figure in the realms of art and literature. In Faust, Rembrandt illustrates the most important moment in the Doctor’s story with brilliant, lightly etched passages that contrast deeply with the dark, rich areas of dry point. Galerie Michael is thrilled to present Faust, a composition of impeccable quality and fundamental addition to a private museum quality collection, to collectors worldwide.