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Wednesday, October 9, 2013


The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Henry Wallis (one of three versions).
Note the tiny bottle in the center foreground. The 17-year-old poet committed suicide.
Necroart--don't try to Google that, I just made it up. But if you do, you'll learn more than you ever want to know about a certain metallic rock band. For my purposes, it refers to the art of painting dead people. Sounds morbid, doesn't it? Perhaps, but there is quite a long artistic tradition for such art, dating back to the first and foremost necromancers in ancient history--the Egyptians. Not only did the Egyptians likely invent this art they went a long way in perfecting it. Just ask the descendants of King Tut. However, it should also be noted the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans also dabbled in the art of painting the dead.

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, 1490, Andrea Mantegna
Copyright, Jim Lane
Burial (detail), 1999, Jim Lane
King Tut notwithstanding, the most persistent subject for such work has long been Jesus Christ, starting with the first pietas painted in Germany around 1300, then moving south to Italy around 1400 where they were sometimes referred to as Lamentations. Giotto's is one of the earliest. The painting of the dead Christs reaching an apex during the Mannerist period following the Renaissance. Andrea Mantegna's 1490 Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (above) is one of the best from this period. In 1999, I painted my one and only dead body, also that of Christ, as part of a triptych, Death, Burial, and Resurrection (left). Strangely, people who might find necroart gross and disgusting seem not to mind when the subject is Jesus.

Death of Marat, 1793,
Jacques-Louis David
Once pietas and lamentation went out of favor, to be replaced by history painting, artists began a certain fascination in creating "Death of..." paintings. They chose individuals as varied as suicidal poets such as Henry Wallis' Death of Chatterton (top) to politicians such as Jacques-Louis David's 1793 Death of Marat (left). David's quite literal depiction was more on the order of crime scene evidence than art, though it became laden with heavy political implications at the time (the French Revolution). Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa (below) might be considered today as history painting at its best, but at the time (1819) it was very much current events, depicting the aftermath of a tragedy at sea in which the French Naval Frigate, Medusa, ran aground, then sank. The ship's carpenter rigged together a raft towed by naval officers in a lifeboat. At some point, they decided to cut the rope, setting the raft adrift, expecting it to sink, drowning all aboard. It didn't. The resulting scandal very nearly brought down the newly re-established French monarchy of Louis XVIII. The Raft of the Medusa may well hold the record for the number of dead bodies in a single painting.

The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19, Theodore Gericault
In more recent years, as history painting also fell from favor, the painting of dead bodies seems to have taken on a "life" of their own. That is to say, the dead no longer have to be messianic, heroic, or even famous to get their images "immortalized" in paint. Edouard Manet's 1862-67 Dead Toreador comes to mind. Aside from the necromancy of "gothic" art today, painting, or even photographing, the dead is usually considered in bad taste. However, in 2010, Daphne Todd, a 63-year-old British portrait artist won the top prize in the England's Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual competition with her touching post-mortem portrait of her hundred-year-old mother, Last Portrait of Mother (below). I could say painting dead people is "alive and well" in today's art, but I'd probably be dead wrong.

Last Portrait of Mother, 2010, Daphne Todd

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