Raising the Dead

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:

23 thoughts on “Raising the Dead

  1. KL says:

    Claudia you seem to have the stage for winters impending grasp.

  2. Elaine says:

    Claudia, This blog is outstanding. I knew you would have Manet’s “Dead Toreador”. As much as admire Manet, the David and the Picasso portrayed emotion completely lacking in the Manet. It looked like a figure on stage. Death in painting is a subject that artists have portrayed for centuries. All done uniquely different. Great post.

  3. Andrew says:

    I don’t really fear death, although I have strong preference to make it quick. A long, drawn-out illness or major intervention to keep me alive an extra month both sound very unappealing.

    On that note, I just finished a book about management professor and writer Peter Drucker. He is quoted as saying “One doesn’t pray for a long life but for an easy death.” Coincidentally, he died exactly 5 years ago (Nov 11) just a few days before his 96th birthday.

    And then there’s the medical doctor I teased when I caught him smoking. He told me “there’s more to life than years.” I’m not sure if he meant that as a deep philosophical message, or if it was just a clever way to say “get lost.” Either way it’s a memorable phrase.

    • artmodel says:

      Andrew,

      Although I hate to admit it I am also a smoker and therefore understand the doctor’s remark. It is memorable and pretty funny.

      I generally agree with you more about preferring a quick death over a long drawn out illness. However an instant death, as in the case of my father, is bad in that you lose the opportunity to say goodbyes or make amends with certain people, that sort of thing. It’s terrible to leave things unsaid forever. But prolonged suffering is awful. I say we all live forever 🙂

      Thanks for your comments and anecdotes!

      Claudia

  4. Fred says:

    Nice collection! I really like the Picasso and the Hodler, and the David, of course. Marat spent most of his time in a medicated bath because he had a terrible itching skin disease. I’ve always thought he looks a bit relieved!

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      Yes, I remember reading about Marat’s terrible skin condition. It was pretty serious and caused him to look quite hideous – almost deformed – in the face. David, master painter that he was, clearly smoothed him out in the painting!

      Thanks for you comments.

      Claudia

  5. good images. the last image by Hodler ( one of my favorite painters) was actually of his mistress Valentine Gode Darel- who was quite a beauty in her prime. This painting was part of a series Hodler did of her as she progressed closer and closer to her death from cancer. I think it was his vain attempt to share in her disintegration- unflinching, day by day recording of her state, right through past her actual death- that was the only thing he could do. Far from being clinical, it was the only way he, the artist, can be intimate with her in her condition, show his love and devotion for her, by being beside her, drawing and painting her right through to the end. By recording her every descent, he , in effect, was dying with her. If one views all the images he did, one realizes this deep affection. I don’t think there’s anything like it in all of western art. She died in 1915. Right after, Hodler did a series of searing self portraits. He died 3 years later, in 1918.

    • artmodel says:

      pigmentpondering,

      Oh my god, thank you so much for providing background for the Hodler. I’m going to make the corrections in the text right now. But check this out; maybe two years ago I was going to do a blog post on Hodler and Valentine, and discuss his chronicling of her illness and deterioration. I don’t know what happened. I think I didn’t like the way the post was turning out and abandoned it or something like that. Back then, I only knew these two works of Hodler’s:

      http://worldvisitguide.com/oeuvre/photo_ME0000053532.html

      I don’t remember seeing the painting “Death” at the time. When I used it in this post I stupidly didn’t make the connection or realize it was part of Hodler’s series. So glad you cleared it up. Thanks again!

      And your comments were really lovely and very touching.

      Claudia

  6. H Niyazi says:

    Hello! I’ve just come across your wonderful blog and wanted to say hello and thank you!

    I look forward to pouring over previous entries. Much to catch up on!

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi
    3PP

  7. Bee says:

    As much as all the images are all beautiful, I particularly liked “The Death of Caesar” and “Death”– both for quite different reasons. The line quality in “Death” is simple but extremely effective and even though it’s a beautiful, the simple line leaves more of an unsettling image than the rest…!!

    • artmodel says:

      Bee,

      Wow, everybody likes the Hodler! You make a great point about the lines, something a wonderfully observant artist would notice.

      Great to hear from you, thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

  8. Jim ( in Japan not Alaska for a month) says:

    I still like the phrase: ‘death is just nature’s way of telling you to slow down.’

    Jim

  9. Gavin says:

    I quite like Egon Schiele’s last drawing, of his wife who’d just succumbed to the flu epidemic after the Great War. Schiele was already dying with it and followed her two days later.

  10. Ray says:

    Thanks claudia . A nice blog, the dark side of art and life. It is like you say a subject we all think about or don’t want to think about. I have gone to a number of funerals lately. Plus we are going into winter. So your timing was perfect .There are so many choice’s of post mortum paintings you can get crazy choosing which ones to put in your blog. You did a great job and introduced me to a few I have not seen.

    • artmodel says:

      Ray,

      Thank you so much! Glad you liked the post and I appreciate your comments. Yes, it was crazy trying to choose art for this post. I could do a part 2, 3, and 4!

      See you soon.

      Claudia

  11. Jennifer says:

    the winner of this year’s National Portrait Gallery exhibition was of the artist’s 100-year-old mother after death …

    A very interesting post and a varied selection of images.

  12. What a wonderful, insightful blog! I’ll definitely pop back again 🙂

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