I was five years old the first time I saw a dead person. It was at my great-grandfather’s funeral. I remember staring at his body in the casket and feeling momentarily confused by what I saw. He looked much smaller than normal, sallow, waxy, and “off” in a peculiar, unsettling way. I don’t know if it’s the embalming fluids or just death itself, but corpses are strangely generic, nonrepresentational things. None of my great-grandfather’s life story (it was an extraordinary one) could be gleaned from the sight of him lying there, a shriveled up old man in the funeral parlor. But this is the way we have come to observe our dead in the modern era; chemically treated cadavers, lying in wooden boxes, removed completely out of the context of their lives, surrounded by bad wallpaper and cheap carpeting in stale smelling windowless rooms, viewed in shifts from 3-5 and 6-8.
I adamantly refused to see my father in death. My mother, my brother and I agreed not to have an open casket at his funeral. So I never saw him in that state, not even once. Not at the hospital, not at the morgue, not at the funeral home. To this day I don’t regret that decision.
But death is – forgive the cliche – a part of life. It undeniably is. The final phase of our “journey”, death is arguably our most profound moment. We fear it, of course. I know I do. If only all our deaths could be immortalized in a great work of art, at the hand of a great painter. Perhaps then we could at least take comfort in knowing that our last moments – the culmination of our time on earth- would be rendered for eternity and given a respectable, meaningful treatment.
Art does an excellent job of capturing the essence and magnitude of death. Whether the circumstances are tragic, violent, pitiful, serene, or righteous, death as expressed through art gives us the stories, the biographies and, in some cases, the moral lessons that accompany the end of a human life. Artists depict these events with the gravity and pathos they appropriately deserve, sometimes with empathy, other times with detachment.
I had a hard time selecting images for this post. There were so many to choose from, works that were both familiar and unfamiliar. But there was one painting that I knew for sure I would use from the get-go. If I were to make a list of my top ten favorite paintings of all time, this one would be on it easily. It’s Jacques-Louis David’s French Revolution masterpiece The Death of Marat. Jean-Paul Marat was a radical, outspoken journalist and Jacobin loyalist who became embroiled in the political ferment of his day. He was stabbed and murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, member of an opposing political faction battling for control of the Republic.
One of the bloodiest, most violent periods in human history, the French Revolution inspired plenty of art. It was a time of turbulent complex politics, assassinations, suspicions and retributions. This painting by David summarizes the whole affair perfectly with just one stark scene and one dead figure. David’s painting is as cold as cold-blooded murder itself, and he brings the viewer into what feels like just moments after the crime was committed, to witness the brutal end of a political player who naively thought he was safe in his own bathtub. This painting is incredibly powerful, dramatic and arresting. Notice that Marat still holds the pen and notes in his hands, a journalist right to the end.
From 1793, Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat:
The English poet Thomas Chatterton died at the young age of 17. He was discovered in the attic of his residence after having ingested large amounts of arsenic. It is unknown whether Chatterton purposely took his own life or whether he was taking the arsenic to cure himself of venereal disease and and accidentally overdosed. Henry Wallis painted a scene of the poet’s tragic, premature death in his 1856 painting The Death of Chatterton:
No blog post about death-themed art would be complete without a Caravaggio. In this work, Death of the Virgin, he depicts not the “assumption” of Mary according to church doctrine, but her actual death in a naturalistic style. Caravaggio brilliantly communicates the sorrow of the grief-stricken mourners by keeping their faces hidden. The sitting figure in the front is particularly effective. Go to the Louvre to see this magnificent life-sized work before your eyes:
The suicide of Picasso’s best friend Carlos Casagemas triggered the artist’s famous “Blue Period” in the early 1900s. Picasso’s most significant work resulting from the tragedy was the enigmatic La Vie, but he also expressed his grief in this mournful, sensitive painting of his friend in death.
Death of Casagemas from 1901:
This image must be enlarged to fully appreciate. It is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Death of Caesar, and it’s truly amazing. A critic once said that if photography existed in Caesar’s day, this painting depicts what would have been the exact scene if captured by camera just minutes after the murder. The whole narrative has seemingly just played out before our eyes. The victorious conspirators cheer and cavort in the background, and there’s Caesar lying dead on the floor in the foreground, brought down through one of the worst acts imaginable – betrayal. I really like the knocked-over chair, such an effective detail:
Cleopatra knew how to achieve her death in true theatrical fashion. She allegedly allowed herself to die of poisonous snakebites, having the creatures brought to her in a basket of figs. Her two loyal servants repeated the action and died along with their queen.
The Death of Cleopatra by Jean Andre Rixens, 1874:
Here’s another phony, staged Manet painting. Although it doesn’t even attempt to portray authenticity, many people like it. You know, because it’s Manet, and everything he does must be worshipped.
The Dead Toreador from 1864:
Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Death of the Pharaoh’s Firstborn Son depicts the story from the Book of Exodus. This is an intricate painting with a lot of detail. We feel the grief of the servants and the mother, overcome with anguish, hunched over the boy’s dead body. But the Pharaoh himself appears unmoved. Perhaps he knew he was beaten and ready to submit to God’s will. There are just so many plagues one can take.
We conclude with a work by the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler. No intrigue here, no violence, no elaborate backstory or spectacle. Just an informal painting from 1915 entitled simply Death. Still, it portrays the final passage as effectively, if not better, than the others. Hodler documented the illness, suffering, and disintegration of his beloved mistress Valentine Gode-Darel. Here she seems very much at peace – alone, comfortable, and ready to fly: