Franz von Stuck was one of the most important German painters in the years around 1900. His mythological and allegorical scenes, radiating dramatic emotion and eroticism, mark a turn away from academic convention and Realism toward an art of the imagination. Exploring spiritual and psychological extremes, including terror, evil, virtue, and hedonistic pleasure, his art epitomizes the preoccupation with the psyche, sexuality, and morality in European intellectual life at the turn of the century. He was also a skilled portraitist, and is particularly appreciated today for his depictions of his daughter, Mary (1896–1961), often in playful historical costumes. Stylistically, Stuck combined a traditional approach to the figure, rooted in the study of classical antiquity and Renaissance masters and in drawing from the live model, with an expressive manipulation of color, space, and form that is eminently modern. His painting practice was complemented by his work as an illustrator, designer, and sculptor (see The Met’s paired pieces, Mounted Amazon
, and Wounded Centaur
Stuck studied at the Munich Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) in 1878–81 and at the city’s Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) in 1881–85. He initially supported himself as a decorative artist, illustrator, and caricaturist, experiences that left their mark on his mature style. By the early 1890s Stuck was well on his way to establishing himself as a painter. His subsequent career bridged the progressive and official sides of Munich’s art world. In 1892, he helped establish the Munich Secession, the city’s premier avant-garde artists’ association. The next year he created a popular sensation by displaying his brazenly sexual painting Sin at the Secession; perhaps surprisingly, Munich’s Neue Pinakothek acquired it that year as a gift from a private collection (see fig. 1 above). In 1895 Stuck was named professor at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, and appointed to the board of the new, cutting-edge artists’ circle Pan, designing the title page for its journal. In 1897–98, the artist was sufficiently wealthy to construct a palatial villa in Munich (now a museum dedicated to his work). He provided architectural plans and designed decor for the building, which was intended as a Gesamtkunstwerk
, or a complete work of art, in which all the elements form a perfect whole. The richly ornamented interior integrates Stuck’s paintings and sculptures into a setting inspired by the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Among the highlights is a towering altarpiece surmounted by a version of Sin
, which presides over the artist’s studio (see Danzker 2013, pp. 72–97).
During the first decade of 1900 Stuck was at the apex of his international renown. He was knighted in 1905 and added the honorific “von” to his last name. However, his triumph was short-lived. As the work of artists like Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso gained currency, Stuck’s style appeared increasingly anachronistic. It was criticized as superficial, exaggerated, and vulgar. By the end of his life, he had fallen into disregard, a fate compounded by the deep antipathy to German art in the United States and Europe after World War II. The mid-1960s saw the start of a new appreciation for the modernity of Stuck’s color, his explorations of the psyche, his inspiration of artists such as Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt, and his impact as a teacher (the nature of which is still debated), particularly on the groundbreaking Bauhaus artists and designers Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee (Danzker 2013, pp. 134–39; Brandlhuber 2016, pp. 83–89, 101–2).The Work:
Stuck painted Inferno
in 1908, when his career was still going strong. It is unquestionably one of his masterpieces: a complex, multi-figure composition, rare in the artist’s production, in which he pulled out all the stops to create a monumental image of existential despair. It exists in a single version. The painting depicts seven naked figures in a fiery pit. At the far left a woman stands at attention with wide, staring eyes. The grimacing head of another individual leans against her breast. In the center of the composition, three men sit in hunched poses, hiding their heads in their arms and hands. At right, a man and a woman are caught in the coils of an enormous, hissing snake.
Stuck’s palette is strikingly dissonant. Brown, blue, and acid yellow-greens were used in the figures; turquoise in the foreground; brilliant red and blue for the fire; and bright yellow and blue in the snake. His juxtaposition of the light-toned bodies of the women with the darker bodies of the men follows pictorial convention. The artist’s brushwork is marvelously varied, ranging from delicate, hatched strokes that resemble pastel (particularly evident in the modeling of the men at center), to passages of heavy impasto that verge on abstraction (notably in the serpent and the flames). Comparison of the painting with early photographs shows that at some point after 1909 Stuck modified the flames and extended them on the right and in a smaller section to the left of the staring woman’s head.
The dark palette, ominous subject, and prodigious ambition of Inferno mark a return to Stuck’s style of the early-to-mid 1890s, but executed with greater panache and inventiveness. The massive, strongly modeled figures attest to his academic training and work as a sculptor, but the solidity of the bodies is counterbalanced by a strong degree of stylization and simplification. The rhythmic patterning of the forms, compressed spatial depth, and eye-catching colors speak to Stuck’s interest in design and illustration—and to his willingness to set aside naturalism in order to accentuate the disquieting emotional tenor of the scene.The Frame:
Stuck designed complementary frames for many of his pictures, including this one. A 1914 photograph shows the artist in his studio with the framed painting partially visible in the background (fig. 2). Preliminary conservation examination indicates that the wood is aged and that the frame retains its original joinery and dimensions, and does not appear to have been altered. It also retains its original water-gilded surface and mordant gilded sides, although the lettering in the predella appears to be reworked. The frame is composed of carved egg and dart ornament, with pearl and reel carving around the outer edges and around the single-panel predella, which is painted to simulate stone. Stuck’s Sphinx
has a frame of a similar style (fig. 3).Preliminary Sketches:
Eight sketches of single figures for Inferno
are documented. They are done in a variety of media and apparently all drawn from live models. Three show the man clutching his arm. There is one sketch each of the blond man beside him, the man in the foreground, the woman crushed by the snake, her male companion, and a “seated male nude” (see Voss 1973, nos. 1–7 under no. 338/170, p. 294; Christie’s London, June 29, 2000, no. 528). Voss identified four preliminary sketches for the compositional ensemble (Voss 1973, pp. 293–94, nos. 335/167, 336/168, 337/169; no. 8 under no. 338/170; see also Raff 2005).The Subject:
The painting was first published in 1909, in English, as Infernal Regions
, and in German as In der Unterwelt
(In the Underworld), a subject that Stuck explored throughout his career, in paintings such as Lucifer
(1890, National Gallery for Foreign Art, Sofia), Pluto
(1909, private collection), and Sisyphus
(1920, private collection). In 1911 Stuck exhibited the present canvas under its current title, Inferno
, a reference to the epic tale of a journey through hell written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in 1304–9. Dante’s gruesome description of serpents tormenting thieves in the eighth circle of hell includes an account of “people who were naked, terrified . . . . Their hands were tied behind by serpents; these / had thrust their head and tail right through the loins, / and then were knotted on the other side” (canto 24, 91–96). However, Stuck’s interpretation of hell does not seem closely related to this or any other mythological or literary source. It is an agony of the artist’s own making.Interpretations:
Stuck’s portrayal of hell has sparked various interpretations. All commentators agree that it is a sexually charged, violent, horror-filled vision of physical and existential suffering. In this regard, it is a manifesto picture, uniting in a single composition multiple themes that Stuck explored in works such as Lucifer
, The Murderer
(1891, private collection), Medusa
(1892, private collection), Sin
, and War
(1894, Neue Pinakothek, Munich), and which continued to intrigue him throughout his life.
Eschenburg (1995) argues that Stuck’s depiction of hell is defined by the relationship between men and women. The woman battling the snake symbolizes the biblical Eve, who, at the urging of the serpent, ate fruit from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, committing the Original Sin that ended humanity’s perfect innocence. The men are metaphors for Adam, whom Eve tempted into immorality. Eschenburg points out that the motif of the snake entwined with a woman is an adaptation of Sin
; in that work, the seductress carries the serpent as a sign of her wicked erotic appeal, whereas in Inferno
, she is trapped by the snake, as if ensnared by her own depravity (see also Becker 1995). Eschenburg contends that the two women in Inferno
represent the animal suffering of pain and insanity, whereas the men represent the intellectual suffering of despair. She connects Stuck’s imagery to nineteenth-century philosophical beliefs that the Fall from Grace determined the character of every heterosexual relationship.
Other scholars adopt Eschenburg’s interpretation with minor variations. Becker (1995) sees the serpent as symbolizing evil’s stranglehold over humanity. He describes the figural group on the extreme left as a devil with its mouth wide open by the breast of a Fury, which he identifies as the personification of evil. (Furies are traditionally considered to be personifications of vengeance.) Clair (2005) understands the composition as a version of the Seven Deadly Sins, but this seems unlikely, given the absence of any of the conventional attributes associated with the vices. Noting that the painting was originally titled In der Unterwelt
, Raff (2005) wonders whether it truly deals with Christian themes; he suggests that for Stuck the question may have been meaningless. Brandlhuber (2008) describes the woman entwined with the snake as an archetype of humanity wrestling with its own evil impulses. She observes that Stuck had long been interested in the concepts of virtue and sin, particularly their origins in the Fall from Grace and their ultimate conclusion in Divine Judgment. From this perspective, it is interesting to note that Inferno
evokes both the beginning of sin (Eve and the serpent) and its end (eternal punishment).Art Historical Allusions:
Scholars have identified a number of art historical chords struck by Inferno
, stretching from antiquity to the work of Stuck’s contemporaries. Sünderhauf (2008) gives the most complete analysis connecting the motif of the two figures battling a serpent to the antique sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons
, which was renowned among European artists since it was excavated in 1506 and put on display in the Vatican in Rome. She suggests that Stuck’s handling of the snake and figures may also have been influenced by the Athena group and other elements of the ancient Greek Pergamon Altar, on public view in Berlin beginning in 1901. Clair (2005) links Stuck’s classicism to turn-of-the-century Munich’s aspiration to be the “Athens of the North” and identifies the antique sculpture in the city’s Glyptothek as another possible source of inspiration.
Writers associate the bulky, muscular quality, dark coloring, and powerful gestures of Stuck’s figures with the work of Michelangelo, specifically his depiction of the damned in the Last Judgment
(1535–41) in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel (Becker 1995 and Sünderhauf 2008). These comparisons are apt, given that Stuck cited Michelangelo as one of his “gods,” along with Rubens and Velázquez (Charles Henry Meltzer, “Franz von Stuck: Painter and Pagan,” Cosmopolitan Magazine
53, no. 1, June 1912, pp. 83–90, reprinted in Danzker 2013, p. 123).
The sweeping, intersecting poses and robust bodies in Inferno
also recall the style of Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), whom Stuck greatly admired and with whom he shared a predilection for classicism, myth, and fantasy. A good comparison is Böcklin’s Triton and Nereid
, which was owned by the Munich art collector Adolf Friedrich von Schack; it features a male figure seen from behind, a female figure with her right arm cocked back, and a giant snake (fig. 4). Brandlhuber (2016) observes a similarity between the man in the foreground of Inferno
and the male nude in Gustav Klimt’s Medicine
(1900–1907; destroyed in 1945), noting the esteem that Stuck expressed for Klimt in 1901. Stuck visited Vienna in the fall of 1904, but the full extent of his knowledge of the city’s art world has yet to be thoroughly investigated (see Agnes Husslein-Arco and Alexander Klee, eds., Sünde und Secession: Franz von Stuck in Wien / Sin and Secession: Franz von Stuck in Vienna
, exh. cat., Munich, 2016, esp. p. 309).
Eschenburg (1995) relates Inferno
to Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker
and The Three Shades
, part of the French sculptor’s homage to Dante in The Gates of Hell
(modeled 1880–ca. 1890), but she does not discuss how Stuck might have come to know these pieces (see The Met’s casts, 11.173.9
). The Gates of Hell
were first displayed publicly in 1900, in a solo exhibition that Rodin organized to coincide with the Exposition Universelle in Paris (where Stuck won a gold medal for furniture), but key individual figures were omitted, including The Thinker
. However, Rodin’s sculptures were exhibited widely in Germany in the next decade, among them versions of The Thinker
, The Three Shades
(see The Met’s cast, 11.173.2
), and other elements from The Gates of Hell
. In particular, a bronze of The Thinker
was shown in Munich in June–October 1905 at the IX. International Kunstausstellung im Königlichen Glaspalast, which was jointly organized by the Munich Secession and the Munich Künstlergenossenschaft (Artist Cooperative) (see Michael Kuhlemann and Hélène Pinet et al., Vor 100 Jahren: Rodin in Deutschland
, exh. cat., Munich, 2006, pp. 159–72, esp. p. 169).Early Exhibitions: Inferno
debuted to the public in the "Exhibition of Contemporary German Art" that opened at The Met on January 4, 1909, and traveled to the Copley Society, Boston, and the Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition, which received considerable coverage in the New York press, was largely the initiative of German-born businessman, art collector, and Met patron Hugo Reisinger (later, the namesake of Harvard University’s Busch-Reisinger Museum, which collects Central and Northern European art). In addition to Inferno
, four paintings and three bronzes by Stuck were included. An installation photograph of The Met’s galleries shows Inferno
in a different frame; it is not known what happened to it (fig. 5). Danzker (2013, pp. 26–38) discusses the display of Inferno
as part of Stuck’s decades-long strategy of exhibiting some of his most attention-grabbing works in the United States.
American reactions to Inferno
were mixed. Critics admired the power and uniqueness of the painting, but were troubled by its color and made profoundly uneasy by the sinister subject (see References). Following the painting’s debut, Stuck exhibited it at several international venues in quick succession: the International Exhibition of Art in Rome in 1911, the Munich Secession in 1912, and the Königliche Akademie der Künste zu Berlin and Große Berliner Kunstausstellung in 1913 (see Exhibitions). The advent of World War I in 1914 brought a temporary end to the artist’s campaign for worldwide recognition, and it appears that Inferno
was not shown publicly again until the Munich Secession’s memorial exhibition for Stuck in 1929.
Alison Hokanson 2017