Women have always been thought of to be dainty and delicate. That unlike men, they simply could not stomach or entertain the idea of death, it was too much for their delicate sensibilities. In an industry where men have dominated since its inception, women artist were never taken quite seriously. Especially when it came to creating Art where death was its main theme. Early female artists were tolerated, but their mediums were generally something beautiful and feminine. It wasn’t thought decent for females, whose minds could simply not comprehend such dark themes to even conceive of drawing death, death scenes, or such darkly associated themes.
However there have been a few female artists who have made a point to stand out and include morbid death scenes, murders, massacres, raptures into at least one of their artworks. Here I will discuss 6 different female artists, spanning different centuries and how they incorporated death into their artwork.
Why is death in art important? Is it even relevant? Of course, it is.
Death is an inevitable and sometimes a troubling topic of discussion. By having women unafraid to broach the subject it shows their courage and determination to stand outside the norm. Death is important in art because it can display its many circumstances and sometimes it can be a beautifully tragic scene. For example, a scene of a mother sacrificing herself for her children. That’s just one example though to show its diversity. Death is a difficult theme to draw, but these women proved that they had it in them and not afraid to broach such a delicate topic.
The first artist that displays death in an unabashed manner is Artemisia Gentileschi from the 1600s. More specifically her art piece “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” oil on canvas (1620-21). Her piece of art follows the story of Judith, who beheads the general of the Assyrian Army that besieged and taken over her city. The powerful image of murder is amazing in part because of its realism. She is compared to her mentor Caravaggio, who also drew this similar act, but the key differences are so stark in comparison. It might be the same image, but they couldn’t be more different. Artemisia doesn’t shy away from portraying what an actual beheading would look like. Unlike Caravaggio’s painting, Artemisia’s image is much more violently bloody, with the severed jugular spraying into Judith and her maid assisting her.
Most importantly, whereas Caravaggio pairs his delicate Judith with a haggard attendant who merely looks on, her eyes wide with disbelief, Artemisia depicts two strong, young women working in unison, their sleeves rolled up, their gazes focused, their grips firm (Dr. Esperança Camara). This truly reflects Artemisia’s own self courage and shows it by portraying Judith being fully engulfed in her murderous task. Artemisia is saying that she is not afraid to stare death straight in the face. However, an important detail to note is that Judith is not slaying for her own devious pleasure, but to save her people and at the same time avenge the people the general’s army has already killed. Artemisia herself had a difficult background including being raped by her mentor and this image I believe perfectly captures her pent-up rage behind her humiliating ordeal.
Another Artist from the 1600s who portrayed death in an elegant way was Elisabetta Sirani with her artwork titled Herodias with the head of St. John the Baptist 1650. The background of the story is that Herodias was upset that John the Baptist publicly criticized her marriage to Herod because they both divorced (her his bother) to be married after becoming enamored. It was during a sensual dance performed by his stepdaughter (Salome) that he eagerly offered her anything she wanted and after conferring with her mother she requested the head of John on a platter. In order to save face, Herod executed John without trial and is a metaphor that people often make rash decisions to save face. The image itself displays Herodias holding the head of John, but with a solemn expression.
One could assume that her gloomy expression might be due to the fact that even after her pestering to have John killed and finally having her way, she realized that is brought her no satisfaction. She is perhaps saying that death is not the answer and will rarely bring solace for those who seek it. The Artwork has no displays of blood, perhaps Elisabetta wanted to show respect to the Saint by having him appear clean and pure. Elisabetta was not known for drawing many gruesome works of art, but did do this one and like her female cohort Artemisia recreated Judith holding the head of Holofernes. Elisabetta’s decapitation scene however in much tamer. Perhaps he was also afraid to delve into something too morbid for a female artist in her time.
The first known female artist to have been allowed to study naked form of a male certainly did not waste her opportunity. Little is known of Giulia Lama, but her art piece Saturn devouring his child 1735, is a breathtaking piece that depicts not only murder, but cannibalism of kin. Her dark oil on canvas piece depicts the story of Cronos (Saturn) eating one of his children, in fear of a prophecy that his kids would be his demise. She expertly shows how brutal and often times sadistic death can be. The grip that Saturn has on his child is firm, yet delicate almost as if waring with what he is doing. His child is depicted nude, chubby from youth and unable to do anything to defend himself, he merely throws his head back as in pain. She chose to not include any gore of blood perhaps because the act itself is vile enough to not warrant the need. She is clearly unafraid like Artemisia or Elisabetta to draw the darker sides of stories and went fully into a scene that no living person (hopefully) would be capable of. The child’s appears pale in comparison to Saturn, because he hasn’t lived long enough to obtain a tan like him.
Death comes in many forms and most artwork that included death used to be mostly reserved for biblical stories, until Elizabeth Thompson rocked the art world with her amazing detailed military battle scenes. One such artwork that displays death in its natural element is her piece titled The Roll Call 1874. It shows a group of soldiers who just finished fighting in the Crimean war. The main reason why Elizabeth’s painting created such a sensation was that she had taken a completely new approach to military paintings, unlike previous military painters, Butler was interested in recording the pain and suffering of ordinary soldiers (Simkin 1997).
She vividly depicts death in its true element, war. Death’s earns it’s most during war and Elizabeth showed the suffering part of war and how no matter who the victor there is no glory for either side. Her image displays wary injured soldiers and one who soldier attempted to rouse a prone comrade who, obvious to the audience is already deceased. Every solder has their natural coloring, except for the prone soldier whose face is sallow and lifeless. You can literally feel the relief these soldiers feel during their short respite and have probably not even fully aware of the number of casualties there actually are. The attention to every detail, including correct colors of their uniforms shows Elizabeth’s understanding of war and death. They truly do go hand in hand.
Death scenes did not always have to be morbid, but in fact a way to educate. Annie Stebler Hopf depicted this in her art piece Autopsy (Professor Poirier, Paris) 1889. Unlike the rest of her predecessors she chose a death scene for the benefit of learning. Hopf’s “Autopsy” explores the theme of medical investigation in a smaller format that succeeds by inventively composing with extreme values contrasting the characters and the background dramatically (Steele 2018). The entire image is a professor performing an autopsy on a male cadaver. The background behind the cadaver is a pale color closely resembling his own pallor, while the background of the professor is a dark contrast, representing life and death. Or maybe the dark grim soul one needs to be able to open up a human body, even if it is a post mortem. Beautiful and esthetically clean background shows that this is a medical/educational procedure and not celebrating death, but rather embracing it and taking the opportunity to learn from it. Similar to the rest of the artists I discussed, Annie chose to draw death to tell a story, not a morbid one, but of a medical standpoint.
The last artist not afraid to depict death is Kathe Kollwitz with Mother holding her dead child 1903. The least gruesome, but definitely the most impactful. The image depicts a mother holding burying her face into her deceased child’s corpse. The haunting sorrow on the brows and grip are clearly visible. Kathe Kollwitz has portrayed her image of the mother and dead child using distressed grey, broken- hearted black, and ugly white to generate an effect of grief, sorrow, depression and misery (Prime time essay 2019). Like the other female artist, she chose to blend the background colors with the image of the mother and make the child a much lighter shade. It could be interpreted as a symbol for his purity because of his youth, the death pallor or to highlight him and represent the innocence of children. Death itself is so tragic, but to display what it with children is always more impactful. What little you can see of the mother including her hands, looks weathered and old. The death of her child could be the reason for her aging or just the appearance of it. A metaphor that grief will age a person. As the saying goes, no parent should outlive their child. Kathe created this when she was in a depression and feared she might lose her son to diphtheria. You can tell her emotions are poured into every stroke of the brush.
In Conclusion, these female artists did not let their femininity or stereotypes that women cannot comprehend death stop them from creating darkly beautiful and often times gruesome works of art. Not a lot of female artists had it in them to depict anytime of death scene and finding these women was a feat in it of itself. Just comes to show how many women would prefer to stay away from this topic. These women dedicated their lives to art and did not shy away from a topic that is considered taboo and instead dove head on into it. Death is beautiful, death is tragic, death is gruesome, death is necessary, but above all it’s inevitable and some courageous women took it upon themselves to depict it for all to see.