The Witch as Muse

The Witch as Muse is an interdisciplinary study of varied contexts and discourses that intersect in early modern artists' representations of witchcraft.

The Witch as Muse
Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe

Linda C. Hults

2005 | 360 pages | Cloth $59.95 | Paper $26.50
Fine Art | Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1. The Witch as Woman
Chapter 2. The Witch as Muse
Chapter 3. Inventing the Witch in the European Heartland: Dürer and Baldung
Chapter 4. Francken, the Rhetoric of Habsburg Power, and Artistic Invention in Antwerp
Chapter 5. The Art of Describing Delusion: De Gheyn and the Dutch Variant
Chapter 6. Rosa: Witchcraft and the Fiery Painter
Chapter 7. Between Enlightenment and Horror: Goya's Reinvention of the Witch


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This book is not a comprehensive survey of images of witches but a deep reading of artists' engagement with this theme in the early modern period. Toward this end, I chose an episodic treatment in Chapters 3 through 7 that would allow me to explore the various discourses and contextual factors that intersect in the images. As I worked with this material over the last decade, the complexity of this intersection became increasingly apparent. The artists I discuss here are outstanding examples of that complexity.

My methodologies are multiple, shaped over time by my experiences as a scholar and teacher in art history and women's studies. In Chapter 2, making no claims to exhaust possible approaches to images or to history, I give readers an account of that shaping. I was introduced to the European witch-hunts and witchcraft imagery in earlier work on Hans Baldung Grien. My first task was iconographic interpretation, which led me to early sixteenth-century demonological theory and to the historical status of witch-hunting in Baldung's context. My concern to address the understanding of witchcraft and the persecution of witches in specific times and places still lies at the basis of each of my discussions of artists and their works. Even in my initial research on Baldung, however, I could see that his efforts to develop a distinctive style and range of subjects in the wake of Albrecht Dürer's innovative example had much to do with his fascination for the witchcraft theme. Ultimately, my study of these images became not simply a reading of their relationship to the waxing and waning of the idea of witchcraft and to the witch-hunts themselves but also of the construction of artistic identity in early modern Europe, seen through the lens of witchcraft images.

This lens is powerful, revealing the layers and evolution of that construction with particular clarity. Early modern artists' careers and works were shaped by competition for recognition, social status, and economic reward. To compete successfully required alignment not only with various elite patrons but also with elevated theoretical notions of artistic invention, beginning in the fifteenth century with Leonbattista Alberti's intellectual but comparatively modest view (in hindsight) of how an artist creates. Although challenged by ongoing religious and moral scruples, by Baroque currents of naturalism and neoclassicism, and by the academic prestige of history painting, imaginative or fantastic invention survived in the margins to be brought to the center at the end of the early modern period in works by Francisco Goya and others.

Thus, the competitive conditions of artists' careers and the varied elements of artistic self-construction assumed an importance equal to the historical narrative of witchcraft and witch-hunting in my interpretation of the images. Moreover, I found that the discourses surrounding witchcraft were indeed related to the rhetoric of artistic self-presentation. The profound political and intellectual implications of witchcraft and its persecution in early modern Europe (as recounted by Stuart Clark in his cultural history of the idea of witchcraft, Thinking with Demons, 1997) weighed heavily on artists' choice of the theme. In ways that often surprised me, the abject image of the female witch (in Chapter 1, I suggest reasons why witches were symbolically if not actually always female) served as a foil for positive masculine identities, including that of artist. My study of these images makes clear that binary notions of gender pervaded early modern culture and society, and that male artists marshaled these polarities to construct identities that overcame the dangers of fantasy, exemplified in extremis by the female witch, with a presumed masculine superiority of reason and virtue, and a control of the senses, the body, and matter. Through the subject of witchcraft—interesting to humanists, theologians, physicians, jurists, officials, and rulers—artists aligned themselves with sites of masculine power and prestige in the early modern period, such as governments, courts, and universities, or the private galleries of wealthy collectors, fascinated not just by the intellectual and moral issues embedded in the theme but also by its capacity to titillate, to shock, and to inspire a sense of the marvelous, the exotic, and the curious.

So this book took shape as an interdisciplinary endeavor, embracing art and literary history, history, and women's and gender studies. What I have most relished about my topic is the way it refuses categorization and closure. In this sense, it clarifies for me my reason for choosing art history as a profession: the opportunity to investigate any aspect of history and culture while remaining firmly tethered to physical objects—a curious combination of freedom and constraint. As the boundaries of my discipline have fallen away, artistic images only seem more significant to me as windows into history and the human condition.