15 June, 2011

Death and Skeletons

"The use of a skeleton as a symbol of death in painting seems to have been unusual during the Renaissance till towards the end of the fifteenth century. The earliest artist of note in this period to adopt it, was Jean Prevost who represented a man taking a letter from a skeleton without seeing the messenger. Then came Grien who painted three works of the kind. In the first Death holds an hour-glass at the back of a woman, and points to the position of the sand ; in the second the bony figure has clutched a girl by the hair ; and the third represents a skeleton apparently kissing a girl.  They are all hideous works, and might well have acted as a warning to succeeding artists.

After Grien the use of a skeleton in design was practically confined to the smaller German masters till the middle of the second half of the sixteenth century, when it disappeared from serious work. From this time on, for the next three centuries artists of repute rarely introduced a skeleton into a painting, though it is to be found occasionally in engravings. One might have supposed that the unsightly form had been abandoned with the imps, evil spirits, and other crudities of past days, but it was not to be.

The search for novelties in recent times has only resulted in the resuscitation of bygone eccentricities, and we must not be surprised that the skeleton is amongst them."

Art Principles by Ernest Govett (1919)

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