Life is Short: 2 Painters killed in pandemics

Egon Schiele (1890–1918), Four Trees (1917), oil on canvas, 110 x 140.5 cm, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, I looked at the terrible toll of promising young artists who died in their prime from tuberculosis and its complications, from Paulus Potter in 1654 to Amedeo Modigliani in 1920. Other diseases were responsible for the deaths of many painters, including pandemics, which are my focus for today.

Michiel Sweerts (1618–1664), Plague in an Ancient City (c 1652-1654), oil on canvas, 118.7 x 170.8 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since people started to record history, epidemics have been a major cause of death, and included bubonic plague, cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, and of course influenza. Michiel Sweerts’ painting of Plague in an Ancient City from about 1652-54 is believed to show Athens during one of these epidemics, perhaps that of typhoid fever in 430-426 BCE during the Peloponnesian War. The moribund and the dead litter the streets, normal life having collapsed.

However, one pandemic which started in about 1338 was different. Changing climate in the grasslands of Asia led to the movement of rodent populations into cities, and those rodents brought with them fleas which carried diseases which were highly infectious among humans, notably Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague.

The Master of Elmelunde (fl 1350), Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) (detail) (c 1350), fresco, dimensions not known, Nørre Alslev Church, Falster, Denmark. Image by Wolfgang Sauber, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some remarkable frescoes in Nørre Alslev Church, on the island of Falster in Denmark, which date from around the time of the Black Death, show what became known as the Danse Macabre or Dance of Death, which has remained a grim thread in art ever since.

The older cities of Europe have been particularly prone to such epidemics and pandemics, with their narrow streets, absent sanitation, easily contaminated water supplies, and itinerant populations. Of those, Venice was by far the worst because of its heat during the summer, and the disease-rich waters of its lagoon.

Titian (1490–1576), Penitent Magdalene (1575), oil on panel, 110.5 x 78.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the greatest painter to die of the plague in Venice was Titian. Just the year before his death, this last version of his Penitent Magdalene series from 1575 features a more Romantic sky, although Mary herself has changed little.

The following year, Titian just disappeared, apparently removed to a plague island, where he died “of a fever” on 27 August 1576. His son, pupil and sole heir Orazio Vecellio also died from plague a short while later.

During the nineteenth century, pandemics changed their nature. With increasing urbanisation and mass movement, with faster means of transport such as railways, what had been local epidemics could spread across the world in a matter of weeks. This increasingly included influenza. During the last year of the First World War, when large numbers of people around the globe had been dislocated, and many packed into military camps, a new strain of influenza killed tens of millions.

Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926), War Women (1918-22), oil on canvas, 124 x 247 cm, Museum Schloss Bruck, Lienz, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Albin Egger-Lienz was one of the few war artists to draw attention to the wives and mothers who had to work on in the countryside during and after the war and the pandemic which followed. His War Women (1918-22) is particularly moving, showing a group of women who had, like so many, lost their menfolk, either to the carnage of the battlefield, or to influenza.

Although many painters fell victim to this pandemic, those of Austria seem to have been the worst affected.

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Adam and Eve (1917-18), oil on canvas, 173 × 60 cm, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustav Klimt had almost completed this painting of Adam and Eve (1917-18), one of his few works showing biblical figures, the other notable paintings being those of Judith with the head of Holofernes. Although he hadn’t painted Eve’s right hand or the passage behind it, there is no sign of the traditional references to the Fall of Man, such as an apple or serpent. Instead, the figures are shown as a happy, loving couple, their heads leaning gently to one side, with flowers at Eve’s feet.

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (c 1917-18), oil on canvas, 180.7 × 89.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Klimt started his third Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk in 1917, and was still working on it early the following year. It was clearly going to be another richly-decorated painting, with abundant colourful flowers in the background, and brilliant peppers and other vegetables.

In early January 1918, Klimt is thought to have caught the deadly influenza which was just starting to spread across Europe at the time. He quickly developed pneumonia, suffered a stroke, and died on 6 February 1918. He was 55.

Egon Schiele (1890–1918), Four Trees (1917), oil on canvas, 110 x 140.5 cm, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Egon Schiele was then a young and radical artist who promised so much. Four Trees (1917) is perhaps Schiele’s finest landscape painting, and one of the most significant of the early twentieth century.

It is sunset in the autumn. Four young chestnut trees stand in a line beside a path which meanders gently across the canvas. Their leaves have already turned completely red, and on one have almost all fallen. The rolling hills in the middle distance part to reveal far rugged mountains, and the clouds roll in parallel banks, coloured by the setting sun.

Egon Schiele (1890–1918), The Family (1918), oil on canvas, 150 x 160.8 cm, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

In the Spring of 1918, Schiele’s wife Edith became pregnant. I don’t know whether this was the stimulus for him to revisit the theme of The Family, but the three figures here seem full of longing and aspiration. The father, surely a self-portrait, looks straight at the viewer. His wife, who doesn’t resemble Edith, stares slightly sadly down to the right. Her lips and nipples are not painted gaudy pink like those of his nude models. Their young child peers out from mother’s legs, as if looking up at an object to the right.

When the influenza pandemic reached Vienna in the autumn, Edith, now six months pregnant, fell ill on 19 October, and died nine days later. Egon Schiele lasted another three days, before being overwhelmed by the virus and dying on 31 October 1918. He was only 28.

The 1918 pandemic proved fatal to many younger people, as well as killing the old.

Eilert Adelsteen Normann (1848-1918), Northern Norway, Midnight Sun (date not known), further details not known. The Athenaeum.

For his view of Northern Norway, Midnight Sun I suspect that Adelsteen Normann travelled north to the Lofoten Islands, where he had painted earlier in his career. A small group of seabirds, probably gannets, are in flight just above the glassy surface of the fjord, at the lower right.

In the winter of 1918-19, the pandemic influenza reached Norway. Normann was then aged 70, and died from it in Oslo on 26 December 1918.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (Jorge Santayana).