Born in the same year as Eugène Delacroix, Colin entered the École des Beaux Arts in 1814, where both he and Delacroix attracted the attention of their teachers, winning drawing and composition prizes. Colin was enrolled in Girodet’s studio, but owes little to this master’s style. Early in his career he was in the vanguard of Romantic artistic expression and was the object of similar critical attacks as Delacroix for his choice of subjects, while being praised for his painterly skills. Colin’s style was generally less robust than Delacroix’s and was later more constrained by academic convention. His refined brushwork was particularly suited to the smaller scale historical and literary genre pictures in which both he and his close friend Bonington were pioneers.
Although he had several early successes and his Massacre at Chios, exhibited at the same time as Delacroix's larger work, was a considerable achievement, Colin never attained the fame of either Bonington or Delacroix and, by 1850, seems to have lost momentum, taking up a teaching assignment at the Academy of Nîmes. A frequent exhibitor at the Salon from 1819 until 1868, he concentrated primarily on subjects from historical or literary sources, while painting a few landscapes and enjoying a reputation as an accomplished portraitist.
In choosing a subject from Goethe’s Faust Colin was probably influenced by his friend Delacroix who began a series of illustrations and paintings from Faust after seeing a musical adaptation of the play in England in 1825. Colin’s painting illustrates a passage called “Night” from Part One of Faust. It depicts the moment immediately after Faust has killed Valentine, Margaret’s brother, at the urging of Mephistopheles and with his magical assistance. While Faust seems to recoil at the deed he has committed, Mephistopheles looks back at their dying victim with no remorse. Colin has included details described by Goethe -- the starry sky and the cither on the ground, with which Mephistopheles serenaded Margaret, and which was smashed by Valentine.
Colin, like his colleagues Bonington and A.-E. Fragonard, was attracted to the same type of literary and historical subjects as the “troubadour” painters, but was stylistically very different. While the “troubadour” painters relished an archaic and miniaturist technique, these artists, clearly under the influence of Delacroix, strove for monumentality, even when working on a small scale. A critic writing for the Journal des Debats in 1826 said of Colin that he was “a fresh and natural talent destined to create scenes of boldness and pathos,” and this work bears out that observation. (1)
1) Quoted in Patrick Noon, Richard Parkes Bonington: ‘On the Pleasure of Painting,” New Haven and London, 1991, p. 263.