Franz von Stuck was one of Germany’s most famous artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From an early age, he showed excellent drawing skills, and despite his social background as a miller’s son, Franz was sent to the Kunstgewerbeschule in Munich. From there, he moved on to the Munich Academy. In this period, he showed a growing sensibility for ornamental effect and an interest in mythological imagery, both important for his further career. His breakthrough came in 1889 with the painting Guardian of Paradise, exhibited at the Munich Glaspalast. Three years later, in 1892, Stuck co-founded the Munich Secession, and two years later, he became a professor at the Academy.
These events marked the increasing influence Franz von Stuck’s art had in Germany. His Symbolist imagery, for which he is best known, is filled with yearning for a world captivated by the beauty between heroism and hedonism. Here are 10 of his best artworks.
1. Pieta (1891)
Franz von Stuck’s art is filled with religious themes that diverge from the traditional Christian iconography in favor of a more Symbolist expression.
Here, Stuck paints a Pietà, which is stripped of all conventions and, in its monumentality, simplicity, and stillness, captures the sorrow of Mary without her face being visible. The expression of emotion can be seen in Christ’s tightly clenched hand and Mary’s curled fingers.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Both Jesus and Mary are rendered in profile, Mary in a strictly vertical position, head inclined slightly forward, face in hands. A sharply delineated halo surrounds her head in the form of a ring intersected by the upper canvas edge. Christ has no halo, being depicted merely as a dead man in the tradition of Hans Holbein. The muscle of his left arm is still tensed, the hand convulsed, bringing to mind the nails of the cross and Christ’s Passion. Christ’s body bears the artists’ features. As such, it has been described by art historians as a Symbolist self-portrait.
2. Crucifixion (1892)
As seen in the Pietà, the Christian themes of suffering, passion, and emotions greatly influenced Franz von Stuck’s art, highlighting the human elements of religious drama. Stuck’s representations of the Crucifixion, both the painting of 1892 and the later variant, contain dramatic color contrasts. Christ has just died and hangs on the cross in a bright, supernatural light. His position of resignation differs sharply from the tormented poses of the thieves beside him, which is reinforced in the 1892 version by the mocking crowd in the background.
Another striking antithesis is that between the dress of the onlookers, built up with grand, stylized forms, and the detailed nude bodies of Christ and the thieves. Stuck studied the distinctive poses of the human form in numerous preparatory sketches and studies of the live model. Perhaps because of this fixation on the muscled nude, the clergy of a Berlin church refused the Crucifixion of 1892 when a wealthy patron offered to donate it to them.
3. Guardian of Paradise (1889)
The Guardian of Paradise is essential in Franz von Stuck’s art as a marker of his breakthrough into the Munich artistic circles. The work, a foundation for his mature art, was exhibited in 1889 at the first Münchener Jahresausstellung (Munich Annual Exhibition).
The Guardian of Paradise caused a stir because of its unusual technique and the new approach it took to the subject. It did not belong to the traditional current of historical painting or the popular peasant genre. It shows how Franz von Stuck’s art comes closer to Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger, considered “painters of the soul and the mind,” the English Pre-Raphaelites, and the French Symbolists. The impasto, enamel-like explosions of paint behind the fiery sword are a reference to the sensory splendor of Paradise. Stuck shows Paradise sparkling with pink, light blue, and yellow. The transparency of the guardian’s garment and the radiant halo around his head has the exact unreal, symbolic nature. The model may have been painted naturalistically. Still, he has been transformed into the ideal of an androgynous youth, the perfect embodiment of the angel raised above humanity.
4. Lucifer (1890)
A year after Stuck’s successful debut with the Guardian of Paradise, he exhibited his Lucifer in 1890. King Ferdinand of Bulgaria was so impressed by this work that he bought it for his palace in 1891, and the painting today is at the National Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria.
As a characteristic of Franz von Stuck’s art, this is not a traditional ecclesiastical devil with horns. Lucifer, the fallen angel who embodies the pathos of hatred, glares at the viewer with bright green, vengeful eyes. The two phosphorous-blue rays of light on the left reference the spark of hope of a life that still glimmers in this otherwise dreary hell. The monumental figure, who sits with his legs pressed together and his hand cupping his chin, was undoubtedly inspired by Rodin’s Thinker, made around 1880. The ashamed huddled Lucifer may symbolize precisely the opposite of the powerful Guardian of Paradise with his proud pose.
5. Sin (1908)
Sin, made in 1908, is just one in the line of femmes fatales disguised through biblical tradition found in Franz von Stuck’s art. Stuck’s best-known and perhaps most notorious painting has several variations. It is a quintessential image of Symbolism that found a way into the works of other artists and even as a center in the altarpiece of Villa Stuck (the villa where the artist lived that he decorated himself).
Stuck developed the visual idea of representing sin and vice by constricting the format and eliminating the surroundings. Inside the frame, taking up most of the space on the canvas is a standing figure of a woman with a lascivious expression, recognized as Eve. She is visible only to the hips and gazes towards the viewer while a snake wraps around her. There is a highly sharp contrast between Eve’s pale, white skin and the dark, slimy skin of the snake getting ready to bite. In Stuck’s rendition of the First Sin, Eve has already chosen evil and becomes one with the snake: devilish, attractive, and depraved.
6. Innocentia (1889)
It would be wrong to assume that Franz von Stuck’s art is only filled with the figures of deadly femmes fatales. In Innocentia, painted in 1889, an androgynous-looking adolescent girl gazes at the viewer with wide dark eyes. She is at the transition point from childhood to adulthood. Her finely modeled face and dark hair stand out clearly from the light background, whose impasto surface suggests a curtain. The figure is clothed in an almost transparent garment rapidly rendered in sketchy strokes. Like the face, the hands holding the lily stem are contoured. The lily leads the eye into the left half of the picture, where the two white blossoms begin to merge with the background. By employing the lily as a symbol of virginity and immortality, Stuck alludes to the image of the Virgin Mary. The androgyny of the figure relates to the feminine ideal of the Pre-Raphaelites. The image is interpreted as the personification of innocence in whom awareness of her sexuality and power is emerging.
7. Self-Portrait with Mary Stuck (1902)
This double portrait was created in 1902 and is based on two portrait photographs of the Stuck couple. This work earned Stuck the gold medal at the World Fair in Paris.
Mary’s pose, leaning against the “artist’s altar” (part of Stuck’s home) and Stuck standing in front of his easel, suggests a scenario where the painter is painting his muse. However, the artist seems absent, pausing in his work, lost in thought rather than observing. Mary Stuck, too, does not look directly at her husband but instead over the top of the heads of imaginary viewers. Unlike typical portraits representing the social status of the artists, Symbolists chose to show themselves as introspective and intellectual. The precisely curated scene enhances the meaning of the artist’s portrait, his wife, and all elements of the studio setting. The “artist’s altar” with a marble base and a gold-backed niche with an athletic statuette, the rear wall of the studio with a relief of the Serpentine Dancers, and the custom-made red chair, based on the artist’s own design.
8. Serpentine Dancers (1895)
Franz von Stuck’s art goes beyond only Symbolism and painting. He was also a prolific sculptor inspired by the contemporary Art Nouveau.
This relief, made in 1895, could be seen in two places in Stuck’s villa: a colored plaster cast was part of the music room, and a bronze version was placed in the garden wall. The two dancers were probably inspired by American dancer Loie Fuller, who made her debut in Paris in 1892 and completely entranced audiences with her solo dance Serpentine. She was a source of inspiration for many artists, who tried to immortalize not only her features but her graceful body. The influence of the French Art Nouveau is unmistakable in Stuck’s relief in the endless, flowing play of lines, the emphasis on the ornamental, and the suggestion of the thin drapery. However, more so than in the painted version, the plasticity of the figures is highlighted. The dancers have a certain classical weight which contrasts with the airiness and playing with light in French sculptures such as those of Agathon Léonard.
9. Kiss of the Sphinx (1895)
Just like with biblical images in Franz von Stuck’s art, classical myths were transformed into symbols of modern times. Stuck’s version of Sphinx shows a contemporary fear of man’s powerlessness when faced with a demonic woman. The body of a young man twists in the claws of the Sphinx. As lips press against lips, there is passionate desire between the figures. Stuck shows an experience of greatest pleasure and the moment of death at the same time.
His interpretation, this time not with Oedipus’s masculine rationality triumphing over the Sphinx but with the victim surrendering sensually to his fate, caused outrage in Munich. On the orders of the police, reproductions of the painting could not be exhibited on the windows of art galleries. Unlike the earlier versions, which refer to the mythological tale, the Kiss of the Sphinx symbolizes passion that eventually leads to destruction.
10. The Stuck Villa (1898)
In 1898, a year after his marriage to the American Mary Lindpaintner, the already successful Stuck realized his ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work of Art).
Stuck’s home, a Neoclassical villa, was on a prominent site on the Prinzregentenstrasse, not far from the river Isar, and is perhaps the artist’s most complex work of art. By building his villa, “the prince of artists” also cemented his social position, just as the society portraitist Franz von Lenbach had confirmed his by creating a Renaissance-like palazzo of his own. The villa was a logical consequence of his artistic ideas and created the ideal setting for his paintings and sculptures. Just as Stuck placed his paintings in frames that he designed himself to be woven into their immediate surroundings, he integrated works of art, interior decoration, furniture, and even his daily life into his home. He designed all the details himself, making them subservient to a sophisticated Symbolist program and taking a special place in Franz von Stuck’s art.