How Artists Portray Death in Art

Over the years we have looked at how artists have handled a number of subjects in their art, including: emotion, shadows, movement, the weather, and even eating a meal. Today we're going to look at how artists have dealt with the subject of death in their art. Artists in different cultures and different times in history have portrayed death in both symbolic and literal ways. Let's take a look at a few examples below.

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The first painting we'd like to look at is The Death of Marat, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1793. (scroll down for more ...)

The Death of Marat, 1793, painted by French artist Jacques-Louis David

The story relates to the French Revolution, in which a radical journalist, Marat, is murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corday, who believed that his death would end the violence throughout the country. What's interesting to note is that Marat was a friend of Jacques-Louis David, so his portrayal of this scene certainly must have included his own personal feelings about the event.

While the painting is done in a realistic style, it has elements of being idealized, so that Marat's death is almost graceful. His head is resting peacefully on the edge of the tub, and despite being stabbed in the chest, he is still holding a quill in his right hand with which he was writing a letter, which he still holds in his left hand. This along with the dramatic lighting and overall calmness of the scene betrays the actually brutality of the stabbing.

Jacques-Louis David isn't avoiding visual proof that a murder has taken place; the murder weapon, the knife, is seen at the bottom of the canvas to the left of Marat's hand. But in placing it here, David is suggesting that the knife was used as a murder weapon and then dropped to the floor in the aftermath.

Below we have two different paintings in which the person who has died is portrayed as resting on their deathbed. At left we have By the Deathbed, painted by Edvard Munch in 1895. Here the focus is not so much on the person who has died, but rather on those who have come to grieve him. Munch has injected some symbolism here, because while the first four mourners from the left are focused on the person who has died, the fifth mourner is facing the viewer of this painting directly. Note that her face is somewhat skeletal, she represents death, and by looking at the viewer, sends the message that one day, death will come for us as well.

Below at right we have Death of Casagemas, painted by Pablo Picasso in 1901. With this painting, Picasso is mourning the death of his close friend Casagemas, who has committed suicide. Some have suggested that this event contributed to the melancholy that evolved into what was known as Picasso's "Blue Period," in which he painted most of his paintings in a predominantly blue hue.

By The Deathbed, painted by Edvard Munch

Death of Casagemas, painted by Pablo Picasso

At right we have Death and Life, painted by Gustav Klimt in 1916. In this painting, the allegorical figure of death is portrayed as a robed skeleton, holding a stick, approaching a family that is grouped together. They are filled with life, and they portray the full range of life, from that of a young baby up to older children, to a mother, father, and even a grandmother. In their grouping and position, they are turning away from death, and seemingly unconcerned by his stalking of them.

Below we have a print titled "The Deadly Sins dominated by Death," by James Ensor, created in 1904. In this case, death is an allegorical bird with a human skeleton head, terrorizing a group of people by flapping its wings above their heads.

The Deadly Sins dominated by Death, a print by James Ensor

Death and Life, painted by Gustav Klimt

Below at left we have a painting by Vincent Van Gogh titled Skull with Burning Cigarette from 1885-86. Looks like a perfect image for an anti-smoking campaign, don't you think? At right is Girl with Death Mask, 1938, by Frida Kahlo. Some have interpreted this small girl as wearing a skull mask while standing next to a mask of a tiger. Could it also be a situation where the girl has removed her fierce tiger mask to realize she's already dead, as evidenced by her skull face? What's your interpretation?

Skull with Cigarette by Vincent Van Gogh

Girl with death mask, painted by Frida Kahlo

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