In yesterday’s article, I looked at paintings showing large black birds, including crows, rooks, ravens and their ilk, usually as symbols of death. Here I complete my survey with works from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These start with two contrasting paintings from Russia, both made in 1871.
In Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov’s Rooks have Returned (1871), these birds are heralds of the Spring, returning to their nests before the winter’s snow has thawed fully, or the buds have appeared on the barren birches. Across most of Europe, rooks are resident throughout the year, but towards the northern edge of their range, they abandon the snowbound areas and overwinter where food remains more abundant, returning in the early Spring.
In Vasily Vereshchagin’s Apotheosis of War (1871), ravens/crows perch on a huge pile of human skulls in a barren landscape outside the ruins of a town. This is a powerful statement, in which the birds play an important role.
Exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1878, August Friedrich Schenk’s Anguish, painted in 1876-78, shows a ewe lamenting the death of her lamb in the snow, as a thoroughly menacing murder of crows assembles around the defiant mother. This is the type of image which could have helped inspire Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novella which became Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), perhaps.
In Arnold Böcklin’s Ruin by the Sea from 1881, the arrival of a large flock of crows to the broken walls of this old and ruined building is an unmistakable sign of death added to its gradual decay.
For John William Waterhouse, large black birds were associated with the arcane world of The Magic Circle, from 1886. His barefoot sorceress is drawing a blazing circle in the dust around her, as a potion bubbles away over the fire. In her left hand she holds a golden sickle. Outside her magic circle are half a dozen ravens or crows, quite possibly former humans.
Possibly Marie Spartali Stillman’s only oil painting, of Antigone Giving Burial Rites to the Body of Her Brother Polynices, probably made around 1883-84, casts crows in their classical role.
Polynices and Eteocles, the sons of Oedipus, quarrelled over which should rule Thebes, leading to their deaths. King Creon, who succeeded them, decreed that Polynices was neither to be mourned nor buried, on pain of death by stoning. Polynices’ sister, Antigone, defied the order and was caught. Here Stillman shows Antigone (centre) attending to the burial of her brother, her companion fearfully trying to draw her away. They are greeted by carrion crows, and at the far right is the headstone of a grave.
Of all the paintings of crows, though, by far the best known is what was one of the last paintings by Vincent van Gogh, completed around 10 July 1890.
In van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, there is controversy over the reading of the birds. They could simply have been present, as is so common in real life, as part of the landscape. It’s very tempting to suggest that they represent his imminent death, but there’s no indication that at the time that he painted this work he was contemplating that, or suicide. They could well be a more personal symbol associated with his life, or with sadness and loneliness.
In the 1890s, Lovis Corinth started to take landscape painting more seriously, including this Landscape with a Large Raven (1893), which was painted in late autumn. The ravens here are assumed to be harbingers of death. In this otherwise deserted countryside, with the winter drawing close, this painting could be read as indicating Corinth’s bleak melancholy. Although he certainly suffered feelings of mortality and had times of depression, those are not part of the received image of his social life, nor of many of his paintings.
There’s also something distinctly sinister about the birds in Stanislaw Siestrzencewicz’s Crows Before the Sleigh from about 1900, where they’re spooking the horses. Could death be just around the next corner?
Like many artists around the turn of the century, Jakub Schikaneder displayed a somewhat irreverent attitude to death, as shown in his undated The Last Journey. The Grim Reaper (death) clad in red here accompanies a new recruit to the underworld or afterlife, as they walk together surrounded by large black crows. One of the birds appears to have met its own bloody end just in front of them.
Landscape with Ravens from 1911 is perhaps one of Egon Schiele’s more challenging landscapes. It shows a fence with irregular black palings receding into the distance over a hillock. On this side of the fence is a small hut with a framework of poles outside it. Several poles with small crosstrees have been planted into the ground. To the right is a black band to establish repoussoir and break any symmetry, and at the foot is a straggly tree with a few brown leaves still remaining. Wheeling over them all are flocks of ravens, in his decaying world of autumn, a world which is darkening and disquieting.
The Pilgrim Folk (1914) may well have been Marie Spartali Stillman’s last major painting, and is her valediction to Italy, which had influenced her so much. It refers to one of her favourite literary works, Dante’s Vita Nuova, via Rossetti, a quotation from which was shown with the painting. This passage contains Dante’s account of Beatrice’s death to a group of newly-arrived pilgrims.
Dante leans out from a window at the left, addressing three pilgrims below. At the lower left corner, the winged figure of Love crouches in grief, poppies scattered in front of him. Pilgrims around the well are taking refreshment after their travels, and more are arriving through the alley beyond. Black crows fly in flocks above, symbolising death. The landscape behind is very Italian, and the whole has a fairy-tale unreality about its mediaeval details. Even more appropriately, this painting was completed just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, and wasn’t exhibited until 1919.
My final painting appears to be another straightforward landscape with crows, in Margret Hofheinz-Döring’s Boßler, Swabian Alps from 1981. There’s still something faintly worrying about those birds, though.