One of the first deities to emerge from primordial Chaos of the origin of the classical universe was Nyx, the goddess of Night. Among her many children were twins, Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep). In this article, I look at paintings of the former, Thanatos, who has at times been a popular theme for artists.
Death is the one certainty in life, and for those in ancient times it was often considered to be a relief from the physical hardships of everyday life, which transported the just to an afterworld which could only be better. Accordingly, early depictions often showed Thanatos as a young, benign and angelic figure, frequently with wings. But he also had an intransigent and cruel side, abducting loved ones and never letting go of his victims.
By the Middle Ages, Christian beliefs, local pagan folk tales and classical myths merged and diverged into two separate figures: Father Time, with his characteristic scythe and hourglass, and the terrifying skeleton or rotting corpse who carried people off in the prime of their life. Neither was the classical Thanatos, who didn’t reappear until the nineteenth century, when death started to become more of an obsession and a fear, despite Christian religious teaching.
Notable here is the absence of the god from Vanitas paintings during the Dutch Golden Age, which preferred elaborate assemblies of symbols alluding to death rather than the figure of Thanatos himself.
Henry Fuseli’s Sleep and Death Carrying away Sarpedon of Lycia from 1803 is perhaps one of the most faithful of the classical revivals. Thanatos and his twin Hypnos are carrying away this dead hero, a son of Zeus who fought for the Trojans, according to Homer’s Iliad.
Later in the century, Thanatos become confounded with Christian eschatology, as shown in Gustave Doré’s Biblical illustration of Death on the Pale Horse from 1865. This accompanies the book of Revelation Chapter 6, verse 8, and remains one of the most popular and truly iconic portraits of the Grim Reaper.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes adopted a Romantic view of death in Schubert’s song in his Death and the Maiden from 1872. The maidens are seen dancing together, and picking wild flowers, as Death lies in waiting on the grass at the lower left, his black cloak wrapped around him and his hand resting on the shaft of his scythe.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, increasing secularism and improving scholarship combined to draw artists back to the classical figure of Thanatos. John William Waterhouse’s first success at the Royal Academy was Sleep and His Half Brother Death, exhibited in 1874. Although a painting with a mythical theme, it appears to have been influenced by the Aesthetic Movement, which was becoming popular as Pre-Raphaelite principles declined.
Almost a decade later, Evelyn De Morgan, who was also painstaking in her reading of classical sources, painted this family group of Sleep and Death, the Children of the Night (1883).
The Grim Reaper clung on, though, in paintings like LA Ring’s Evening. Death and the Old Woman from 1887. An elderly woman sits at the roadside on a huge sack which she is clearly unable to carry. She is alone, it is the end of the day, and the sun has just set behind her. Here comes winged death, the skeleton bearing his scythe, ready to take her away.
Thanatos became a recurrent theme with some painters around the turn of the century.
As George Frederic Watts grew older, his paintings became more concerned with the inevitability of death. From an earlier Love and Life, in about 1885-87 he moved to Love and Death. He rejected the notion that death was the terrible gift of the Grim Reaper, and here shows the more classical approach with the figure crushing Cupid’s roses, but not disturbing the nearby dove. This less morbid treatment generated a lot of discussion, and Watts ended up painting several versions of this image.
Watts’ Time, Death and Judgement (1900) evolved over a series of versions first started around 1870, although they differ only in small details.
The figure of Time is at the left, holding his traditional scythe; unusually, Watts depicts Time as a young and muscular man, rather than the more conventional grandfatherly figure with white hair and beard. At the right, Death is a young woman, the lap of her dress containing fading flowers. Time and Death are linked by holding hands. Behind, and towering over them, is the figure of Judgement, holding the scales of justice in her left hand, and brandishing a fiery sword.
Another thread mixed Death not with love but with the eroticism of the femme fatale, as in the revised story of Salome.
Death, which is dated 1896, was probably intended as Carlos Schwabe’s frontispiece among his illustrations for the final group of Baudelaire’s poems Les Fleurs du Mal. It shows a vengeful female version of the Grim Reaper figure with feline eyes. She swings her scythe high above her head as she stands at the prow of a boat with an elaborate figurehead adorned with red roses.
Schwabe developed the theme of the Grim Reaper further in his watercolour of Death of the Gravedigger from 1900. An old gravedigger is seen deep in his own work, on a snowy winter’s day. Squatting beside that grave is the female figure of Death, holding in her right hand a small oil lamp emitting an unnatural green light. She looks languidly down at the gravedigger, and he looks up at her in fear. The long barren twigs of a weeping willow form a curtain which echoes the curves of her wings.
If one artist was truly obsessed with the figure of Thanatos in its modernised form it was surely Jacek Malczewski.
In the years around the turn of the century, Malczewski worked and reworked the theme of death in a series of paintings, of which Thanatos (1898-9) was the earliest. Here, the Greek myth has been revised completely to show Thanatos as a young woman, still bearing her symbolic scythe, but closely allied with Eros. Naked under her scant scarlet robes, she sizes up an old man who is cowering at his window.
His next examination of the theme, Thanatos II (1899), takes place under the cold moonlight of the artist’s mansion in Gardzienice. Holding her scythe, Thanatos has regained her traditional wings, which seem more butterfly than bird. Behind her the mansion looks to be burning, with figures and several dogs gathered on the lawn in front of it.
Then in Death (1902), her skin assumes the ghastly green of the putrefying corpse, as she closes the eyelids of a figure of the artist himself.
Jakub Schikaneder displayed an even more irreverent attitude to death, as shown in his undated The Last Journey. The Grim Reaper once again clad in red accompanies a new recruit to the underworld or afterlife, as they walk together surrounded by large black crows.
Hermann Behrens brought in a more traditional skull and skeleton in his Nude Woman with Death as a Vanitas Allegory (1901).
My last example brings us well into the twentieth century, with Gustav Klimt, in a painting which he completed during the Great War and just three years before his own untimely death during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.
Klimt had started work on drawings for his Death and Life in about 1908, and completed this painting in 1915. He uses similar patterns and symbols to those of his Golden Phase, but here with a minimum of gold.
At the left is the figure of death, a skull wielding a club, which resembles a church candle-holder. It is emblazoned with dark crosses and eyes/corpuscles. At the right is life, with seven bodies of sleeping women, one man, and a young boy. They are wrapped in a decorative quilt bearing brightly coloured flowers which are reminiscent of his holiday paintings of gardens.
I wonder what art historians of the future will make of our contemporary paintings.