7/1/11

John Martin, Manfred and the Witch of the Alps



Date:1837
Technique: Watercolor and bodycolor

Martin exhibited this watercolor and its companion, Manfred on the Jungfrau (now in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery), at the Society of British Artists in 1838. Both watercolors illustrate episodes from Byron's romantic poem Manfred, which was published in 1817. The poem describes the suffering and eventual death of the sorcerer Manfred, who is punished for his dealings in the black arts by being unable to find rest. After an attempt at suicide (which is illustrated in the Birmingham drawing), Manfred visits the Witch of the Alps, who says that if he surrenders to her will and gives her his soul she will help him achieve rest. But Manfred refuses. The shadowy figure to the right of Manfred in the watercolor is not a change of heart on the part of the artist, but Manfred's soul, with which he is considering parting.

Both watercolors were painted at a time of desperation in the artist's life, as financial crisis loomed. In autumn 1837 Martin wrote to a friend: "I feel myself a ruined, crushed man.... There are no more bright days in store for me." The Whitworth drawing and its Birmingham pendant show Martin identifying with the suffering of Byron's romantic hero and rising above his crises to present an intensely sublime Alpine landscape, an area which he had never actually visited.

Source 1
Source 2

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