Reading visual art: 3 The Grim Reaper

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Death (1902), oil on canvas, 98 × 75 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

The English phrase the Grim Reaper refers to the personification of death, and is one of relatively few instances of an image description coining a new phrase.

There’s considerable doubt over its classical origins, as his distinctive scythe wasn’t associated with Thanatos, the Greek god of death. Instead, the scythe or sickle was an attribute of gods of time, including Saturn, through confusion with the Titan Cronus or Cronos, none of whom had anything to do with death, but centred on a truly ancient myth involving the castration of Uranus.

In painting, it’s supposed that the figure of the Grim Reaper first appeared in the fourteenth century, during the epidemics that raged across Europe at that time.

Jean Fouquet (c 1420–1478), untitled page in the Veauce Hours (c 1460), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Among the earliest conventional images of the Grim Reaper is Jean Fouquet’s in this page of the Veauce Hours from about 1460.

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.

One of the first well-known painters to show the everyday tragedy of early death is Hans Baldung, a contemporary of Hieronymus Bosch. This version is thought to have been painted in 1509-11, and depicts death as a decomposing corpse holding an hourglass high above his beautiful victim. The hourglass is another classical attribute of time rather than death.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Apotheosis of Henry IV and Homage to Marie de’ Medici (Marie de’ Medici Cycle) (c 1622-25), oil on canvas, 394 x 727 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens included a sickle in his elaborate allegory of The Apotheosis of Henry IV and Homage to Marie de’ Medici, painted in about 1622-25 as part of the Marie de’ Medici Cycle. This shows the assassinated king being welcomed into heaven as a victor by the gods Jupiter and Saturn. Saturn, holding a sickle in his right hand, marks the end of Henry’s earthly existence in the role of the Divine Reaper, by appointment to the late king.

Pieter Thijs (1624–1677), Time and the Three Fates (c 1665), oil on canvas, 137.5 × 164.5 cm, Museum of Art and History, Geneva. Wikimedia Commons.

During the seventeenth century, the scythe was still more likely to appear in the hand of Father Time, as shown in Pieter Thijs’ Time and the Three Fates from about 1665.

Pierre Mignard (1612–1695), Time Clipping Cupid’s Wings (1694), oil on canvas, 66 x 54 cm, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre Mignard’s lovely Time Clipping Cupid’s Wings (1694) is another allegorical painting featuring Father Time with his scythe.

Although Europe continued to be swept by epidemics that killed hundreds of thousands, the Grim Reaper went back into hiding until he became the scourge of the nineteenth century.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Death on the Pale Horse (1865), print from illustrated edition of the Bible.

Gustave Doré’s Death on the Pale Horse accompanies the book of Revelation 6:8, which doesn’t mention scythes of course, and quickly became one of the most popular (perhaps truly iconic) portraits of the Grim Reaper.

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 links Schubert’s song of that name from 1817 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 Grim Reaper sleeps 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.

Laurits Andersen Ring (1854–1933), Evening. Death and the Old Woman (1887), oil on canvas, 121 x 95 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

The Grim Reaper features 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.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), The Plague (1898), tempera on fir, 149.5 x 104.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Arnold Böcklin reminds us that the spectre of death is never far away in The Plague, painted in 1898.

If one artist was truly obsessed with the Grim Reaper it was surely Jacek Malczewski.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Thanatos (1898-9), oil on canvas, 45 × 57.5 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

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, Greek myth has been completely rewritten to show Thanatos as a young woman, still bearing her scythe, but closely allied with Eros. Naked under her scant scarlet robes, she sizes up an old man who is cowering at his window.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Thanatos II (1899), oil on canvas, 124 × 73 cm, Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, Łódź, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Death (1902), oil on canvas, 98 × 75 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926), Death (1896), illustration for ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ (Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire, Paris, 1900, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Carlos Schwabe’s Death from 1896 was probably intended as the frontispiece for the final group of poems in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. It shows a vengeful female version of the Grim Reaper with feline eyes swinging her scythe high above her head as she stands at the prow of a boat with its elaborate figurehead.

Jakub Schikaneder (1855–1924), The Last Journey (date not known), further details not known. The Athenaeum.

Jakub Schikaneder’s undated Last Journey dresses the Grim Reaper in red to accompany a new recruit to the underworld or afterlife, as they walk together surrounded by large black crows.

Although the Grim Reaper is now deeply embedded in European culture, there are still some dissenters who can confuse the unwary.

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904
George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), Time, Death and Judgement (1900), oil on canvas, 234.3 x 167.6 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the artist 1900), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Towards the end of his life, George Frederic Watts painted Time, Death and Judgement (1900), a work that had evolved over a series of versions first started around 1870. The figure of Time is at the left, holding the traditional scythe; unusually, Watts depicts Time as a young and muscular man, rather than the more conventional Father Time 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.

Tomorrow I’ll look at another longstanding image of death, the Danse Macabre or Totentanz.