Here Stuck has taken the story of the temptation of Eve and condensed it to its three most essential parts, omitting any extraneous narrative elements such as the garden, the apple or Adam. In this poignant imagining, he presents only Eve, emerging naked out of a darkness, the body of the massive snake coiled around her, and a sulphurous light or flame in the upper right. Perhaps this fire references Eve’s damnation and hell, but just as likely it is an allusion to the knowledge of good and evil which has been bestowed upon her by Lucifer, a figure that Stuck exhibited to shocking effect in 1891 and who is known also as the “morning star” or “light bringer”. Incidentally, it is also the space in which Stuck consistently, and prominently, signs his name.
With the bodies of Eve and the snake entwined, their cool skin in close contact, each empowers the other to brazenly confront the viewer. His representation of Eve as femme fatale could not be more different from the grief stricken and shamed figure depicted in Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden (fig. 2), but is closer to his peer Max Klinger’s clever rendering of Eva und die Zukunft (1898, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, fig. 3), in which the snake holds a mirror for Eve, as if to reveal to her a truer self. As Klinger’s etching testifies, Die Sünde was painted at a time of social introspection, as the scientific field of psychoanalysis is beginning to take shape and the primacy of religion as a moral arbiter is being displaced. Stuck’s Eve, and by extension Stuck demands that the viewer complicate and question their conception of sin itself.
Stuck’s art is connected and runs parallel to the influential work of some of his contemporaries such as Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, all of whom were interested in the desires and anxieties of the human psyche, as well as questioning society’s moral, religious and spiritual constructions. Many of Stuck’s peers were simultaneously interested in exploring the hidden recesses of the mind through hypnotism, spiritualism and the occult. Fellow Secessionists Albert von Keller and Gabriel von Max hosted séances, and while there is no clear evidence, it has been suggested that Stuck attended such séances and even hosted them at the Villa Stuck (Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, ““The Apotheosis of Brutality”: Franz von Stuck and America”, Franz von Stuck, Frye Art Museum, exh. cat., Seattle, pp. 25-6).
It was not unusual for artists of the fin-de-siècle to inject their canvases with a psychological frisson by opposing religion and eroticism. Stuck was not explicitly religious, but between 1889 and 1891, before the first public exhibition of Die Sünde, he completed four paintings of religious subjects for his first one-man exhibition at Galerie Schulte in Berlin and again at the International Art Exhibition in Munich the same year: Garden of Paradise (1889, location unknown), Lucifer (1890, The National Gallery for Foreign Art, Sofia, Bulgaria), Paradise Lost (circa 1890, location unknown) and Expulsion from Paradise (1889, private collection). The German Symbolists were keenly aware of the power of scandal to draw an audience, and these paintings and their warm critical reception set the stage for Die Sünde to make her sensational and provocative debut.
The impact that the painting had on contemporary audiences cannot be overstated. It was enormously popular, and quickly purchased by the Neue Pinakothek in Munich where it was installed immediately. Stuck rightly saw it as a pivotal moment in his career, writing that “from then on the way was open for me. Now all my pictures sold” (as quoted in Edwin Becker, Franz von Stuck, 1863-1928: Eros and Pathos, exh. cat., Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 1995, p. 18). German doctor and best-selling poet Hans Carossa describes the reaction it prompted upon its installation at the Neue Pinakothek:
"The fame of the painting drove us through the galleries; we stopped nowhere and opened our eyes for the first time when we were finally standing opposite it … and now all three of us stared at the night of hair and snake which did not allow too much of the pale, female body to be seen. The shadowed face with the bluish-white of the dark eyes was less important to me at first than the iron sheen of the nestling snake, its evil, beautifully designed head and the dull chequered pattern on its back, over which a delicate blue line ran like a seam … There are works of art that strengthen our sense of community, and there are others that seduce us into isolation. Stuck's painting belonged to the latter group" (Dr. Hans Carossa, Gesammelte Werke “Das Jahr der schönen Täuschungen”, II, Leipzig, 1949, p. 295-6, as quoted in Becker, p. 18).
Following the Munich Secession and unveiling at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Die Sünde acquired celebrity status and was reproduced widely, even used in an early-twentieth century advertisement for mouthwash. It is often cited as an inspiration of Edvard Munch’s Madonna (fig. 4), “its ubiquitous presence – as well as Stuck’s immense fame – would have made Sin readily familiar to Munch, allowing its dark sensuousness to influence his own images of women” (Britany Salsbury and Jay A. Clarke, “Individual Works: Tracing Influence from Ancher to Zorn,” Becoming Edvard Munch, Influence, Anxiety, and Myth, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2009, p. 208). Adding to Die Sünde’s notoriety, in his novel Gladius Dei (Sword of God), Thomas Mann wrote about a religious and ascetic youth, Hieronymous, who railed against the proliferation and popularization of art with a sexual and blasphemous theme and envisioned the fiery sword of god descending to earth and destroying the art found everywhere in Munich. It was commonly understood that Mann was alluding to the work of Franz von Stuck and likely Die Sünde, as he describes an image that was presented in a shop window that is “framed with exquisite taste in a gold frame… A Madonna, completely modern and free of any conventions… bared and beautiful. Her large sultry eyes had dark edges… [she was] a woman to drive you insane” (as quoted Becker, p. 19). The gold frame that Mann is likely referencing is the artist-designed tabernacle frame with large gilt Doric columns found on earlier versions of Die Sünde (as Stuck was knighted in 1906 and acquired the prefix ‘von’ in his surname, the present work surely dates from some time after). It is no coincidence that Stuck redesigned his Künstleraltar, installing the painting in its large gold frame as an icon at the top of it, upon the publication of Mann’s novel in 1902 (Birnie-Danzker, p. 145).
Stuck had made his American debut at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, just a few weeks before the opening of the premiere exhibition of the Munich Secession. Three years later, Stuck was invited to exhibit works in the 1896 Saint Louis Annual Exposition and naturally he chose to submit the painting which had gained him fame and notoriety since his last American show. That same year, he was also included in the First Annual Exhibition at the Carnegie Art Galleries in Pittsburgh, where he would feature Die Sünde again, as he would but two years later, at the Third Annual Exhibition at the Carnegie Art Galleries in Pittsburgh (Birnie-Danzker, p. 30). Given such broad and consistent exposure, and the work’s power to excite, it is not surprising that Stuck was prompted to paint multiple versions of the composition.
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