Paintings for our time: Death and the Maiden

Henry Lévy (1840-1904), The Young Woman and Death (1900), media and dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article, I looked at the origin of an unusual motif in painting, the Ship of Fools. As a theme in visual art, Death and the Maiden is considerably more common, but concerns a peculiar association, that of death with the erotic. This was first expressed clearly in paintings around five hundred years ago, and was revived during the late nineteenth century.

In European art, personifications of Death have generally been derived from those of Time: a man bearing a scythe and sometimes an hourglass or sandglass (a timer consisting of grains of sand inside two glass bulbs joined by a narrow neck, resembling the figure of 8). From this evolved the Grim Reaper, often depicted as a skeleton or rotting corpse wearing long monastic robes with a deep hood, and holding his scythe.

Hans Baldung (c 1484–1545), Death and the Maiden (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, Austria. Image by Dguendel, via Wikimedia Commons.

Among the first well-known painters to show the everyday tragedy of an early death coming to a young woman is Hans Baldung, a contemporary of Hieronymus Bosch. He made several paintings of this scene of Death and the Maiden. This version is thought to have been painted in 1509-11, and is now in Vienna. The woman is young, beautiful, and nude, arranging her long tresses in front of a hand-mirror. Behind her is a decomposing corpse holding an hourglass high above her: he is Death.

This painting is also a good example of a long tradition which can be seen going back to ancient Egyptian wall paintings, that of colour-coding the genders. Men traditionally have yellow or pale brown skin, but women are as white as porcelain.

Hans Baldung (c 1484–1545), Death and the Maiden (Death and Lust) (1517), tempera on limewood, 30.3 x 14.7 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Baldung’s later Death and the Maiden, also more appropriately titled Death and Lust, from 1517 shows a similar scene. This time Death has taken a firm grasp on the woman’s tresses, and she locks her hands together in prayer, knowing well the fate that awaits her.

When this theme was revisited in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the figures had changed. Death was no longer that grim pre-Christian reaper, but the Angel of Death with feathered wings.

Horace Vernet (1789–1863), The Angel of Death (1851), oil on canvas, 146 x 113 cm, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

In Horace Vernet’s The Angel of Death from 1851, a young man is praying over the side of a bed, kneeling, his hands clasped together. Opposite him, an illuminated Bible is open, above that an icon hangs on the wall, there is a sprig of flowers, and a flame burns in prayer. But the occupant of the bed, a beautiful young woman, is being lifted out of it. Her right hand is raised, its index finger pointing upwards to heaven.

Behind her, the Angel of Death, the outer surface of its wings black, and clad in long black robes, its face concealed beneath a hood, is lifting her out, to raise her body up towards the beam of light which shines down from the heavens. This epitomises the nineteenth century European attitude to death, and its common narrative as an ascent to Heaven, without any of Baldung’s earthy eroticism.

One major influence was the lied (sung poem) composed by Franz Schubert in 1817, Der Tod und das Mädchen, ‘Death and the Maiden’. Its translated verse reads:

The Maiden:
“Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, dear,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.”

“Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!”

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Death and the Maiden (1872), oil on canvas, 146 x 107 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ Death and the Maiden from 1872 probably linked Schubert’s song with the recent war, in which so many young French and Prussian people had died, together with contemporary scourges such as tuberculosis, which killed many young adults.

The maidens are seen dancing together, and picking wild flowers, as the personification of Death is apparently asleep on the grass at the lower left, his black cloak wrapped around him and his hand resting on the shaft of his scythe.

The Angel of Death
Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), The Angel of Death (I) (1880), oil on canvas, 123.8 x 93.3 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Evelyn De Morgan’s androgynous Angel of Death from 1880 is one of three similar paintings which she made of this motif. Here Death holds in their right hand the scythe so feared by us all, while comforting a seated young woman. The landscape at the left of the painting appears dry and barren, with just three daisy flowers visible. That to the right of the angel is better watered, more fertile, and has richer flowers. This has been interpreted as indicating that the woman’s past was tough, but that her imminent death will offer her a better future, another popular aspiration of the day.

It wasn’t long, though, before this simplified interpretation became more complicated, when the erotic returned.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Death and Life (Death and the Maiden) (1893-94), oil on canvas, 128 x 86 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

Edvard Munch’s Death and the Maiden, Death and Life or The Loving Woman, from 1893-94, shows the souring of love, as a naked and wanton woman kisses a skeleton of a man. Framing them in repoussoir are long-tailed sperm cells, at the left, and two foetuses, at the right.

This is one of Munch’s most complex images, and invokes the cycle of life, from gametes through intra-uterine development, to love, then death. The artist here symbolically links Eros, procreation, and Thanatos (death).

Domenico Morelli (1823–1901), The Angel of Death (1897), oil on canvas, 108 × 160 cm, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, via Wikimedia Commons.

Domenico Morelli’s The Angel of Death (1897) returns to the simpler emotions of a winged female angel tenderly drawing a white sheet over the body of a young woman who has just died.

Henry Lévy (1840-1904), The Young Woman and Death (1900), media and dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Lévy’s style may be more academic and conventional than Munch’s, but his Young Woman and Death from 1900 mixes almost as many emotions. The Angel of Death, depicted as a saintly young man with large white wings, is embracing a dying young woman in an overtly erotic way, with his hand cupped over a breast, and his mouth close to her ear. She is starkly naked, and a clothed young man kneels by her, his arms outstretched and pleading for the angel to leave her with him. Behind is a ‘Gothic’ landscape.

Marianne Stokes (1855–1927), Death and the Maiden (1908), oil on canvas, 95 x 135 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Marianne Stokes’ Death and the Maiden from 1908 returns to the purity of Vernet, though. Her Angel of Death could even be female, and holds a lantern in her right hand, as she comforts her young victim.

My last painting of this small selection is by Egon Schiele, who was going through a somewhat complex phase in his personal life at the time. He had just forsaken his partner Wally (Walburga Neuzil), with whom he had been living for the last four years, and married Edith Harms. It appears that Schiele expected to maintain his relationship with Wally after his marriage. When he tried to explain this to Wally, she – not unsurprisingly – abandoned him immediately, and they apparently never met again.

Egon Schiele (1890–1918), Death and the Maiden (1915), oil on canvas, 150 x 180 cm, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Schiele expressed this in his major painting of Death and the Maiden (1915), which was exhibited the following year in Berlin. The young woman is based on his earlier paintings of Wally, and the man is a self-portrait. They embrace in unnatural kneeling positions on crumpled sheets which are laid out on rocks in the countryside.

The challenge is to work out what Schiele’s painting has to do with any of the preceding images, the personification of Death, or the Angel of Death.