Franz von Stuck - Tilla Durieux as Circe

by Sarah Baur


In 1900, society still disapproved of a woman of status practising a profession. The profession of actress or even dancer was frowned upon anyway.[1] Nevertheless, some of these women contributed to the inspiration of writers and painters with their creative profession. The German painter Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) also dedicated several paintings to such exciting women, such as in his portrait of Tilla Durieux in her role as Circe.


Stuck was one of the most influential and important Art Nouveau artists and Symbolists of the fin de siècle in Munich. He founded the Munich Secession with several fellow painters in 1892 and was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. A strong affinity with antiquity and Romanism shaped the artist's life, as did his fascination with the female. He therefore devoted the majority of his works to the enigmatic nature of women with a symbolist treatment.


All this found a fitting connection for Stuck in Tilla Durieux. The actress was known for her embodiments of striking and fatal female characters. In 1912, she slipped into the role of Circe in the play of the same name at the Munich Künstlertheater. Even though, strictly speaking, the painting here does not refer to Homer's sorceress Circe, it is based on a play that is modelled on the Circe-Odysseus episode and in which the encounter and relationship of the Homeric actors is central to the plot.

In the almost square oil painting, against a completely black background, the sitter is seen as a half-figure in profile facing left and holding a golden bowl in front of her. The bowl is decorated with a relief showing a lion. The sitter's hand is adorned with a striking gold ring on each finger. She also wears lavish gold earrings studded with pearls. She is dressed in a blue, black and gold patterned robe, which is only fastened on her left shoulder by a brooch. She wears one panel of the dress over her bent right arm. Her auburn hair is pinned up and a few curls have come loose from her hairstyle. With wide eyes and slightly open red glossy lips, which a smile plays around, she looks at something outside the picture space.


The reduced colour palette is dominated by a cool colouring. The pale, almost white skin stands out clearly against the dark background and lets the red hair shine. This contrast and the delineation of the colour surfaces, together with the renunciation of depth spatiality, create a striking effect.[2]


Stuck chose for his work the explosive moment in which Circe hands Odysseus enchanted wine. Abandoning any scenic or spatial context, he concentrated in his depiction on the appearance of the actress. The only attribute in the painting is found in the golden drinking goblet, which creates a link to Circe's familiarity with the wild felines by means of the lion relief.


The red hair in Stuck's painting is an emphasis on the exotic and the seductive. With the bluish shimmer and the golden sparkle of the dress, Stuck set decorative accents against the dark background.She is probably even weighing up the consequences she would have to face should she decide against visiting the royal house, for both options endanger her own safety as well as that of her husband. Rembrandt's reduced pictorial composition and the impressive focus on Bathsheba's lost-in-thought musing seem to be a very special interpretation of the pictorial theme, especially with a view to the pictorial tradition. A direct comparison of the work with, for example, Peter Paul Rubens' Bathsheba (c. 1635) reveals a very different design of the desirable woman.


This darkness evokes the feeling of a theatrical stage space and at the same time adds to the mysteriousness and mystification of Durieux's role as a sorceress.

Her bent-over posture can be interpreted both as humble, but also as lurking. The urgent arm and above all the penetrating gaze contribute to an atmosphere that is threatening and oppressive to the unseen her-counterpart.


The pale incarnation of the sitter is not unusual in Stuck's depictions of female figures, as he chose this as a deliberate contrast to the darker skin tones of his male protagonists. An additional bluish or greenish tinge to the light tone also gave the figure depicted a demonic or dangerous appearance, as was the case in this portrait.[3]


Stuck staged the portrait of Tilla Durieux in her role of Circe as an infernal magician of passionate expressiveness and demonic seduction in a discreetly antic make-up. Although Stuck expressed the menacingly seductive traits of Durieux's Circe in a unique pictorial composition, "memorialising her talent for portraying fatal female characters,"[4] the actress herself, however, did not take a liking to Stuck's pictorial productions, remarking, "They were not to my taste."[5


[1] GROSS-ROATH, Claudia: Das Frauenbild bei Franz von Stuck, Weimar, 1999, pp. 128 and 133.

[2] Ripperger, Hannah: Portraits of Tilla Durieux. Pictorial Stagings of a Theatre Star, Göttingen, 2016, p. 125.

[3] Gross-Roath p. 33

[4] Gross-Roath p. 97

[5] DURIEUX, Tilla: My First Ninety Years. Memoirs, Berlin, 1980, p. 175


Franz von Stuck - Tilla Durieux as Circe

c. 1912, oil on canvas, 60 x 68 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin