The Story Behind Art's Morbid Fascination With The Beauty Of Death
October 30, 2017|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
At some point in history and art, dying from one of the deadliest diseases was seen as the most beautiful way to leave this world.
There’s always been a connection between the ideas of beauty and death. For instance, take a look at the most beloved and popular fairy tales: Snow White and The Sleeping Beauty. I mean, they’re not dead per se, but their cursed to sleep in a fashion that resembles the idea of death. If you take a look at art, whether it’s literature, painting, sculpting, or any other discipline, you’ll see the motif of the beautiful dead (or unconscious death-like) woman repeating itself all over. One of the most common associations of beauty and death came from the Middle Ages. Known as the romantic disease, tuberculosis (or consumption as it was called at the time) was idealized as the most romantic and purest form of dying. The condition which was also considered a beauty ideal, which turned tuberculosis into the ultimate motif in in art.
Birth of Venus - Sandro Botticelli (1486). Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia Vespucci, model of this iconic painting, was considered one the most beautiful women alive. It was so that she was chosen to represent the most gorgeous goddess of them all.
Tuberculosis had always been one of the deadliest diseases in the past, taking, until the nineteenth century, about 25 percent of the European population. This infectious disease provoked by a mycobacterium, generally spread through saliva, affects the functioning of the lungs. The immune system works so intensely to defeat this extremely resistant bacteria that by doing so it ends up destroying the tissue of these organs, causing the decay of the body and death. So why made this terrible disease so desirable?
Flora - Rembrandt (1634). Also known as Saskia, this is a portrait of Rembrandt’s wife just a few weeks before dying after the birth of their baby, presumably due to tuberculosis.
To start with, there was an issue we’re still dealing in regards to body image: thinness. The disease naturally provoked a lack of appetite that, together with the immune system’s battle to defeat the bacteria, made the fat of the muscles disappear, making the bones look more protruded and a tinier waist. In the past, and even today, corsets were used to make the waist look smaller, and having that natural shape was enviable.
The Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus - Claude Manet (1868). Inspired by Francisco de Goya’s famous Majas, this painting portrays Fanny Claus, one of Manet’s wife’s best friends. She was a renowned concert violinist who died at the age of 30 from tuberculosis.
Consumption also decreases the natural levels of minerals in the body. For that reason, the skin of the patient looked paler, also a desirable feature in female beauty’s standards. Moreover, the body’s struggle to get rid of the intruder also provoked terrible fevers that, as a consequence, gave a reddish hue to the patient’s cheeks and lips. So, although the disease was literally consuming everything inside the person, on the outside they would have the most desired and enviable beauty traits anyone could wish. They looked like the ultimate Snow White: slim, fair skinned, and with natural red lips.
Jeanne Hebuterne in Red Shawl - Amedeo Modigliani (1917). She was one of Modigliani’s recurrent models, not to mention that she was the partner he had a daughter with. Tragically, after only two years of romance, she threw herself from a five-store building when her lover died of tuberculosis.
The idea of tuberculosis as a beautiful way to die was something that pervaded through centuries. But as history has proven, this issue had double standards. On the one hand, chaste and virtuous women who died of consumption were believed to be saint-like who had deserved the best death possible. They took care of their looks and how they presented to society, concealing other symptoms the disease provoked, like spitting blood. However, women without such a pure curriculum were said to have contracted the condition out of punishment. According to Christina Newland’s article for Lit Hub, during the 1850s, some physicians associated this blood as a “displaced form of menstruation.”
Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan - Thomas Gainsborough (1787). Mrs. Sheridan was a highly renowned musician famous for her performances in Bath and London. When she married Richard Brinsley Sheridan, she quit her career in music and devoted herself to her husband. However, she caught tuberculosis when she was 38. It’s thought that she already had the disease when she posed for the picture due to the features of her face and sickly countenance.
This disease that affected women and men equally was more associated to femininity and, according to the behavior of the individual, it was seen as a blessing or a punishment. The contagion of the bacteria was so common that you’d be surprised at how many of the most important characters in history died from this. Politicians, monarchs, painters, writers, scientists, you name it, some of the most important ones got it, and as a common element in everyday life, it can be seen frequently depicted in art.
Paintings always have a hidden story behind their creation, if you want to know more of these, take a look at the following: