The absolute worst that can happen to any painting is for it to vanish forever, destroyed. Although hard to estimate, it seems likely that the European paintings that survive today from before 1500 are but a tiny minority. Look back further to classical Greek art, and all that remains are paintings on vases and the like. Every single painting made by the Greek civilisations has been destroyed.
Those include the works of Apelles of Kos, one of the most renowned of the great painters of ancient Greece. Claimed to have been active around 330 BCE, he has been attributed at least eight major works, among them Aphrodite Anadyomene, in which the goddess Aphrodite rises from the sea. This achieved fame in part because his model for Aphrodite was a former mistress of Alexander the Great, Campaspe, according to the writings of Pliny the Elder.
Although several of Apelles paintings were taken to Rome, and it’s claimed that at least one survived as a copy in the ruins of Pompeii (above), all that remains of Apelles’ works are their verbal descriptions in classical writings.
Despite the paintings of Vermeer being largely forgotten until his art was rediscovered in 1842, his reputation has grown enormously over the last century. There are few enough surviving paintings by him in the world, but one, The Concert from about 1663-66, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA, on 18 March 1990, and remains unrecovered.
Francisco Goya lived in more troubled times, and several of his works came to a premature end.
In 1799 Goya completed three altarpieces for the Church of San Fernando in Monte Torrero, near Zaragoza, that were tragically destroyed there in 1808 (or perhaps in 1810 during the Battle of Zaragoza). His sketches for the three survive, from which this is for Saint Hermenegild in Prison. This saint, also known as Ermengild, was the son of the Visigothic King Liuvigild, and died a martyr rebelling against the tyranny of his father in 585. He was imprisoned in the Tower of Seville, where he refused the Eucharist from an Arian bishop, for which he was beheaded.
William Hogarth completed the six paintings forming his first great narrative series A Harlot’s Progress in 1731, and they first appeared as engravings the following year. All six paintings were destroyed by fire when at Fonthill House in 1755, leaving just their prints.
The general outline of the story is of an innocent country girl, Moll Hackabout, who comes to London, and immediately falls into the hands of a notorious brothel-keeper and madame. Moll becomes the kept mistress of a wealthy merchant, but later slides into common prostitution. She is arrested, and ends up in London’s Bridewell Prison. Having contracted syphilis earlier, the disease progresses, steadily killing her. She finally dies at the age of 23, mourned only by her fellow prostitutes.
Perhaps the greatest loss in more modern times was Gustave Courbet’s masterpiece The Stone Breakers (1849), destroyed during the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden in 1945.
One of the surviving images of this painting is of sufficient quality to give an idea of what it must have looked like. It was exhibited at the Salon in 1850, and marks the dawn of Naturalism. The artist later explained that he encountered this group of men on the roadside one day, apparently when he was in Ornans. He felt they were so complete an expression of poverty that he was immediately inspired to paint them, and invited them to attend his studio the following morning.
It was another previous war that deprived us most of the earlier works of Camille Pissarro.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Pissarro fled with his family from Louveciennes outside Paris to Norwood, then an outer suburb of London. When he returned to France, Pissarro discovered that most of the 1500 or so paintings that he had left behind had been damaged or destroyed by Prussian soldiers who had occupied his house. His Winter Landscape at Louveciennes was one of the few survivors.
Hardly any of the work of the Dutch Nabi Meijer Isaäc de Haan survives today. He probably painted this Self-portrait in about 1889-91. Following his death in 1895, attempts to give his masterwork Uriël Acosta to the Rijksmuseum were unsuccessful, and that painting was lost. His other work could only be disposed of for trivial sums, and has almost all been lost too.
This was one of the few paintings he left behind in Le Pouldu, and his daughter Ida failed to persuade a museum to take them into their collection, so they were auctioned off in 1959. This work ended up in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, from where it was stolen in October 2012, and is now presumed to have been destroyed.
The Second World War was the worst catastrophe to strike the paintings of Europe. Many were looted, and others destroyed altogether, among them some of the most important paintings of Gustav Klimt, including the series of huge canvases intended for the Great Hall of Vienna University, completed in 1907. These were being stored in Schloss Immendorf in 1945 when it was set alight by retreating German forces.
Klimt’s panel for the Faculty of Medicine is rich in figures, rising up from that of Hygeia, daughter of Asclepius (or Aesculapius) and goddess of health, hence hygiene. Dotted over swirling masses of dark hair are white symbols or corpuscles, at the top of which is a full skeleton. Klimt’s projection would have made this appear even more impressive when it was in position on the ceiling.
The figures at the right represent the river of life, and linking that with the woman at the left are two arms. At her feet is an infant.
This colour detail of Hygeia gives a small impression of how wonderful the painting must have appeared, with its rich colours and extensive gold leaf. The serpent is the snake of Asclepius, and the cup she is holding is that of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in the underworld.
For the Faculty of Jurisprudence, eye-like objects cover the surface of an octopus, which is embracing the bowed figure of a criminal. Surrounding the criminal are three Furies (Erinyes), and in the background the three personifications of truth, justice, and law look on.
Most challenging of all, Klimt’s painting for the Faculty of Philosophy uses faces and figures to envision thought. He described the group of figures on the left as showing the beginning of life, its fruition, and eventual decay. On the right, the globe signifies mystery, and emerging below is the figure of light, representing knowledge.
In addition to those large canvases, landscapes and others by Klimt were lost in the same fire.
Klimt’s radical view of Malcesine on Lake Garda from 1913 had probably been painted through a telescope.
In the summer of 1917, Klimt painted this Garden with Roosters, another victim of the war.
Whether we like it or not, every human life must come to an end. None of these paintings need have died, but for the greed of thieves, and the destruction of war.