Have you ever walked through an art gallery, and contemplated that the portraits hanging on the walls are of real people? That may seem an obvious observation, but stay with me.
That painting, is someone who lived and died. A real individual whom you will never meet, but who was granted a form of eternal life within four corners of a frame. A person who occupied space in our vast universe for a short time as we do, who is likely now no more than bone or dust, yet who’s likeness survived them.
For many of us, it’s a familiar feeling indeed, particularly when we see art depicting those similar to us in station or appearance, or experiencing similar mundanities to us within the captured moments. It can feel like peaking back in time, just for a second. Like reaching out across temporal limitations to steal a moment with someone who could have been a friend, had you come into existence sooner. Someone who’s experience could have easily been yours.
For those who achieved fame or infamy through their deeds in life, scoring their names into the vast slate of human history, this can be difficult to feel. Many can seem like figures of myth and legend when spoken about in abstract, and much of the art depicting these storied individuals places them on a gilded, unattainable pedestal. It’s when you see some interpretation of them expressing genuine emotion that you realise they too were real; they once laughed, cried, loved, felt bored, felt frustrated, walked many of the same streets people walk today..
In this series of articles, I’ll be breaking down the histories behind paintings that are guaranteed to make you feel something; whether it’s for a royal you learned about in school, or a common man or woman who’s name did not survive the passage of time. Spend a moment studying the images and then read the histories of those that call out to you the loudest.
Death of Barbara Radziwill – Jozef Simmler (1860)
This piece is like a final note to the dramatic love story of Barbara Radziwiłł and Sigismund II Augustus, the last king of Poland in the Jagiellonian dynasty. Sigismund was married to Barbara in secret in 1547, sparking a scandal because despite being from a respectable Lithuanian family, she was a “noble of the lowest order.”
Only after a long struggle with his mother Bona Sforza and parliament did Sigismund manage to bring about Barbara’s coronation in 1550, so that she could be recognised not as his mistress, but as Queen of Poland.
However, the young queen tragically died only six months after her coronation, without ever giving birth to an heir. The cause of her illness has been debated widely, but is shrouded in misogyny. Although we now believe that her symptoms aligned with cervical cancer, some politicians claimed that her illness was caused by her use of contraceptive measures. Even her own relatives gossiped in their letters about whether she had died of a sexually transmitted disease, despite being loyal to the king for many years even before their union. Interestingly, there were also rumours that she was poisoned by the Queen Mother, Bona Sforza, who would later be rumoured to have poisoned her own lover too.
The end of Barbara’s life is symbolised by the censer on the floor, and the closed prayer book on the chair. As her arm hangs limp and her complexion blends into the white linens, the King sits as a silent witness, his brow furrowed deeply and with tears spilling from his eyes. The only suggestion of regality is the golden bedspread, a reminder that no one is untouchable in death, not even with the title of Queen.
Les saltimbanques, or ‘the wounded child’ – Gustave Dore (1874)
Saltimbanque, while a French word, is from the Italian saltare in banco, “jumping on a platform,” and signifies “tumbler, performer, entertainer.” Saltimbanques are a subset of acrobats, though the term has a slightly derogatory connotation that mocks the profession as foolish and shameful. In this piece, it seems to mock the parents shown in the piece for the reckless endangerment of their child, by including him in their tight-rope performance.
The artist explained that, “he is dying. I wished to depict the tardy awakening of nature in those two hardened almost brutalized beings. To gain money they have killed their child and in killing him they have found out that they had hearts.”
The mother is adorned in the traditional attire of the ‘bohemian’ traveller, and is represented in the role of a fortune teller. At her feet, playing cards are spread out where a card is highlighted at the epicentre: the ace of spades, a symbol of death. The suggestion that the child’s death was anticipated only makes the fathers expression of horror more poignant, one of both grief and guilt, asking himself what he has allowed to be done.
The Entry of Mehmet II into Constantinople – Jean Joseph benjamin Constant (1876)
The capital of the Eastern Roman Empire since the 4th century AD, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turkish army commanded by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.
The defending Byzantine army was composed of fewer than 5,000 men, not a sufficient number to adequately cover the length of the city’s walls, some 19 km in total, and only 26 ships. The Ottoman army numbered 200,000 men and were armed with 9 metre long cannons capable of blasting their ‘impenetrable’ Theodosian walls apart.
Mehmed offered Constantine a deal only when news of revolt in his homeland reached him: pay tribute and he would withdraw. The emperor Constantine refused, and Mehmed gave the news to his men that now, when the city fell, they could plunder whatever they wished from one of the richest cities in the world. Whilst the Janissaries – highly trained elites of Mehmed’s army – launched the third wave of attack on the city, the Byzantines were forced to employ women and children to defend the walls.
Though it is easy to detach oneself from the sight of bodies of willing soldiers strewn across the ground, while the focus is set upon the triumphant sultan and his risen red flag drawing attention from the red blood below, we are forced to acknowledge with context that many of these bodies were of civilians, or entire families just trying to defend their home. When chaos ensued and defeat was unavoidable, many defenders rushed back to their own houses to protect their families. (It is at this point that Constantine was killed in the action, having discarded any indications of his status to avoid his body being used as a trophy.) Many of the city’s inhabitants also committed suicide rather than be subject to the horrors of capture and slavery, which was a reality beyond simple anti-ottoman propaganda.
Perhaps 4,000 were killed outright, and over 50,000 were shipped off as slaves. Many sought refuge in churches and barricaded themselves in, including inside the Hagia Sophia, where they were subsequently butchered. This piece depicts Mehmed entering the city himself, calling an end to the pillaging and declaring that the Hagia Sophia church be immediately converted into a mosque.
The surrender of Breda – Diego Velazquez (1635)
The siege of Breda of 1624–25 occurred during the Eighty Years’ War, and resulted in Breda, a Dutch fortified city, falling into the control of the Army of Flanders.
In 1624 Philip IV chose the best Spanish commander from the Thirty Years War, Ambrosio Spínola, to take back the city. Spínola commenced a long siege on the city that eventually prompted the Dutch forces to give in.
Justin Nassau, commander of the Dutch forces, stood down on the condition that he and his men would be able to surrender honourably and be treated as “men of war.” His own troops exhausted and short on materials, Spínola was in no position to argue, and on June 5, he accepted Nassau’s symbolic turning over of the keys to the city in a peaceful ceremony in which no soldiers or civilians were harmed.
This famous Spanish painting patriotically presents the Spanish as a strong force, while also including both sides of the battle, even depicting facial expressions of fatigue that reflect the reality of war. The painting shows Spínola having dismounted his horse to face his old enemy on level ground, as an equal. He puts his hand on Nassau’s shoulder in a moment of surprising humanity, a gesture of consolation and compassion reflected also in their calm, respectful expressions.
The last day of pompeii – Karl pavlovich bryullov (1830)
24th October, 79AD, at around 1pm, the Vesuvius exploded in silence. Pompeiians raised their heads and probably saw a dark cloud quickly embracing the landscape. The vast majority of people gathered in the city’s Forum trying to understand the cause, as the mountain was not yet known to be a sleeping volcano. Shortly after, the winds swept the column of smoke and ash towards Pompeii, and the rain of ashes went on for 12 hours. Pompeii’s streets and houses up to the first floor disappeared, roofs collapsed, and bridges caved under the weight of the ashes; leaving people no possibility to escape. In the morning of the 25th of October, the first eruption had stopped and people began roaming outside again, trying to find a way to escape. However, that morning, the black column coming out of its crater collapsed on itself, causing what can only be defined as a “landslide” that travelled at a speed of about 95 miles per hour. Thousands in the streets died trying in vain to protect themselves and their loved ones, covered and imprisoned in a deadly mud.
Artist Bryullov visited Pompeii in 1827 while his brother was involved in excavating the Pompeii baths. He was so affected by the remains of the Via dei Sepolcri (Street of the Tombs) that he decided to set his painting in that street. Contemporary letters indicate that he studied Pliny the Younger’s eye-witness description of the disaster, in which Pliny’s uncle died, and Pliny’s observations in his letters to Tacitus were referenced in the picture.
Statues topple from their pedestals in a representation of the power of nature over man, and a mother implores her son to flee as Pliny’s mother had urged him to do, while the bolting horse and broken chariot lead the viewer deep into the painting where more chaos is occurring. Several family groups can be identified in the composition trying to shield one another against an unstoppable force. One infant can even be seen clinging to his deceased mother, only feet away from three women – presumably a mother and daughters – holding one another as they stare helplessly at the destruction around them.
Faithful unto death – Edward John Poynter (1888)
This piece by Poynter seems to depict the previous works scene from a different perspective.
During the excavations at Pompeii in the early 19th century, the skeleton of a soldier in full armour was discovered. Romantic historians of the period assumed that he had remained loyally at his post while all the other inhabitants of Pompeii were fleeing from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Poynter has painted a night scene with the sentry standing in an entrance sharply and theatrically illuminated by the glare of the eruption at which he is staring with detached concern. By contrast behind him others are desperately struggling to escape the encroaching flames.
The soldier’s dedication to his role – even when fighting against the brutal and unstoppable might of nature – may be routed in apathy as much as it is patriotism. He perhaps knew that he could be of no further use to protect his family, unlike the Byzantine’s who fled to their homes in Constantinople when the Janissaries occupied the city. Though those Byzantine soldiers abandoned their orders, they still fought until their dying breaths against their invaders. In contrast, this Roman man obeys orders to stand sentry even whilst knowing there will soon be nothing to guard, watching his civilisation crumble around him.
This became one of the most famous Victorian paintings; the theme of absolute devotion to duty and of total obedience to orders by a military elite had a special appeal to late Victorian imperialist Britain.
The irritating gentleman – Berthold Woltze (1874)
Berthold Woltze’s “The Irritating Gentleman” depicts an unknown girl dressed in what appears to be black mourning attire. She has a tearful face which looks out from the frame with a resigned expression on her face, reminiscent of a silent cry for help, for some merciful rescue from the untimely attentions of the man behind her.
The young woman may have suffered a recent bereavement, and may even be travelling back after the funeral. She looks too young to have just buried a husband, but she may have just lost her last parent, and is now living alone or moving to live with relatives – hence her full bag and box opposite. This circumstance makes her prey to men seeking out a young wife or mistress, harassing her without the consequence of a male chaperone intervening. For many women who travel alone even today, we empathise with her.
At the school door – Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (1897)
Though the subject of this painting is turned away, his body language reveals much when accompanied by historical context. The boy in ragged clothes visibly hesitates to enter a classroom, where the boys are hard at work, only one peeking at him.
His clothes seem handmade, but he has got a tidy haircut for the occasion and has taken off his hat, signalling he’s about to go inside. However, it seems he isn’t the only poor member of the class, as that same boy peeking at him is barefoot at his desk.
Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky was the illegitimate son of a poor farmer, from a small town between Moscow and Minsk. At this time, poverty meant that education was not a given, but Nikolay was able to attend a parish school – perhaps making this an autobiographical work.
Under the Yoke (burning the brushwood) – Eero Jarnefelt, 1893
The scene was painted in Lapinlahti, Northern Savo, where the Järnefelts spent the summer of 1893 at the Rannan Puurula farmhouse.
The tradition of burn-beating was still practiced in the area, the intensively manual method of fire clearing farm land to enrich the soil and clear fields. The work was very difficult, and without the use of mechanized equipment, it was almost exclusively done by the poorest peoples, struggling to produce enough food for survival.
The artist drew sketches of the land and took photographs of the men and women at work during the summer. The model for the main character in the painting was Johanna Kokkonen, a 14-year-old maid of the household. Järnefelt has blackened the girl’s face with soot, added a surrounding halo of smoke and painted such sadness in her eyes as to appeal to the viewer’s heart on behalf of these heavily burdened people.
The martyr of Solway – John Everett Millais, 1871
Margaret Wilson was a young Scottish teenager, of the Scottish Presbyterian movement. She was executed by drowning for refusing to swear an oath declaring James VII (James II of England) as head of the church.
Wilson was executed along with Margaret McLachlan. However, Wilson became the more famous of the two women because of her youth; she was about 18 years of age at the time of her death.
As a teenager, her faith in the face of death became celebrated as part of the martyrology of Presbyterian churches. They believed that no man, not even a king, could be the spiritual head of their church. They also opposed the authority of the bishops in the Church. They believed that only Jesus Christ could be the spiritual head of a Christian faith.
Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan were chained to stakes on the Solway Firth. As the tide rose, choking on the saltwater, Margaret Wilson was told to offer a prayer for the King, which she did, but she continued to refuse to renounce her beliefs.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? – William Frederick Yeames (1878)
This painting depicts a fictional event from the English Civil War (1642 – 1646) although the child at the focus of the piece is modelled from the artists own nephew, who inspired it with his truthful nature.
This series of civil wars were fought between Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”) and Royalists led by Charles I (“Cavaliers”), over England’s governance and religious denomination. This piece shows a Royalist aligned household placed under occupation by Roundheads. The young boy is being questioned as to the whereabouts of his father, the master of the house, and a royalist sympathiser. His youth and innocence is emphasized by the cushion he stands on just to be eye-to-eye with the seated adult man interrogating him, as he is faced with the choice to save his father by lying, or tell the truth and give him up. To the Victorians, at the time of the paintings creation, children were often seen as ideals of truth and honesty, creating a suspense in the expectation that he will tell the truth.
Behind him, a soldier is gently holding the boy’s crying sister, a sign of compassion towards the children despite placing them in such a predicament. To the left is the children’s mother, wracked with anxiety at the boy’s possible answer, which may expose her husband’s whereabouts and see him prosecuted.
The angel of death, Evelyn De Morgan (1880)
From the time of their marriage, the De Morgans were spiritualists. Although this may appear odd today, many Victorian intellectuals were fascinated by such matters. The couple practised automatic writing in the form of a long-running empirical quasi-scientific experiment, publishing a book on their experiences.
The theme of death was an increasingly common theme in Evelyn’s art as time went by. The Angel of Death is the most overt representation of the subject and demonstrates Evelyn’s spiritualist belief that death is to be welcomed and not feared.
Evelyn depicts the Angel of Death, who is symbolised by his grey hair and scythe, as a beautiful and benign figure, gently comforting the frail female figure he has in his sight. The young woman appears to have had a hard life – signified by the arid landscape behind her. In contrast the way forward is illustrated with a fertile landscape and spring flowers, demonstrating Evelyn’s view that the path of the Angel of Death is not to be feared.
The painting may represent her long-standing agreement with her beloved husband, as part of their ‘experiment’, that whoever dies first should try by whatever means to contact their surviving spouse, if they do survive in spirit. She may show death being welcomed as a friend because he represents her husband returning to her, to show her there is an afterlife after all.
The last bed of the little one, Amalia Lindegren (1858)
Amalia Lindegren was born in Stockholm, and after the death of her mother, she was adopted by the wealthy widow of her alleged biological father, the nobleman Benjamin Sandels. Her position as a child was somewhat humiliating, as a form of charity object for the upper classes, and in her later work, her paintings of sad little girls are believed to be inspired by her childhood.
Lindegren liked to paint sentimental paintings with motifs taken from everyday life. In 1857, Amalia took a study trip to Dalarna, her mother’s home province in central Sweden. She was inspired by the people, their clothing and traditions, and created idealised paintings which celebrated their peasant way of life. Perhaps she admired their close family bonds, and their nurturing of their own children instead of relying on hired help to raise them.
These pieces depicts the inside of a peasants cottage, inhabited by a family in Rattvik costume. In the first painting, the family mourn a deceased infant in a cradle. This first painting is a total contrast to the second, where this way of life in relative poverty is instead romanticised. The infant the woman is holding in the 2nd piece is presumably no longer living in the 1st. The fathers fur coat worn in the first painting can be seen discarded in the 2nd, too, while the curtains have been drawn, symbolising warmth and joy that is now lost to them.
At this time in the 1800s in the United Kingdom, the mortality rate for children under the age of five was 329 deaths per 1800, a figure that was also made worse by a poorer lifestyle. This means that approximately one in every three peasant children did not make it to their fifth birthday. This familiarity with death did not make the people of the period complacent in it, though, or any less impacted, as shown in this emotional piece.
The lunatic of Etretat – Hughes Merle (1871)
In Merle’s haunting painting, the woman’s face is a mask of suffering while she cradles a wooden log as though it was a sleeping infant, seemingly swaddled in a blanket and wearing a babies cap.
Though some suggest that she might be mad with longing for a child she cannot have, it is commonly believed rather that she is mourning the loss of a child. Either through the high infant mortality rate at the time, or perhaps one that has been taken from her. It was common practise for unmarried mothers to have their infants taken at birth and adopted out to wealthy childless families, sparking a rise in post-partum psychosis for the unwitting mother. Or, if she was already considered a ‘lunatic’, her child may have been taken from her for this reason, only deepening her tragic mental health decline.
The figure’s anguish is a hallmark of Romanticism, a style that emphasized images of suffering, madness, and death. These images were often thinly veiled allusions to broader social suffering or political upheavals. For example, Merle painted The Lunatic in 1871, the same year that France lost the Franco-Prussian War.
Ivan the terrible and his son Ivan – Ilya Repin (1885)
This piece depicts the grief-stricken Tsar (King) of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, cradling his dying son, the Tsarevich (Prince) Ivan Ivanovich. The moment occurred shortly after the elder Ivan had dealt a fatal blow to his son’s head in a fit of anger while the two were fighting. The painting portrays the anguish and remorse on the face of the elder Ivan and the gentleness of the dying Prince, forgiving his father with his tears even as life fades from him.
The artwork has been called one of Russia’s most famous and controversial paintings, vandalised twice, because Tsarevich Ivan’s death had grave consequences for Russia, leaving no competent heir to the throne. After the Tsar’s death in 1584 and the younger Ivan still healing, his unprepared son Feodor I had to succeed him with Boris Godunov as de facto ruler. After Feodor’s death, Russia entered a period of political uncertainty, famine and war known as the Time of Troubles, spanning from 1598 to 1613. This bloody painting thus captures the moment that sent Russia into a downward spiral, felt for generations to come.