Art

The Romanticization of Suicide in Art

The Romanticization of Suicide in Art

Perhaps history’s most famous suicide, the particulars of Cleopatra’s death have firmly fascinated society for countless years. A huge part of what makes the story so captivating, is the fact that she used an asp as the tool with which to end her life. Not surprisingly, her death has been the subject of many paintings, including Leonardo da Pistoia’s Cleopatra. In the past attributed to other Italian artists, such as Jacopino del Conte, da Pistoia’s rendering of the Egyptian Queen’s death may not be the most famous but is certainly a very striking one. Against a shadow-cloaked background, Cleopatra stares out of the left side of the frame, lips parted in anticipation as the asp coils itself around her bare body, pausing at a nipple, and giving the piece a strange kind of sensuality while remaining decidedly foreboding.

In England, up until the early 19th-century, when one died by their own hand, they were refused burial in consecrated ground, condemned to be interned on the outskirts of the village, often at a crossroads to confuse the spirit so it could not find its way back to haunt the living. Even though the practice of burying suicides at crossroads was abolished before Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837 (it was replaced by burying the unfortunate souls in unconsecrated soil of common burial places), the Victorians exemplified the ambivalent attitude society often possesses in regard to suicide being condemned in practice, yet highly romanticized in art.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, oil on mahogany panel, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, oil on mahogany panel, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Thomas Chatterton was an early Romantic poet, who killed himself at the tender age of seventeen. Born in Bristol in 1752, and raised in poverty with the absence of a father, Chatterton’s childhood was bleak. The one saving grace for the boy was his precocious aptitude for the written word. By the age of eleven he had published work of a level well-beyond his years, and subsequently penned many more pieces under the guise of a fictional 15th-century poet. In 1770 he left the South West for the promise of London, where while still publishing work, he found it was hardly enough to sufficiently live on. In August that year, while taking a walk in the St Pancras Churchyard, Chatterton was deeply lost in thought, and as a result stumbled into an open grave. When his companion helped him back out, joking that that he was happy to help in the resurrection of a genius, the poet replied: “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now”. He killed himself three days later by ingesting arsenic.

After his untimely death, Chatterton became a Romantic hero for many young artists experiencing the same struggles that he himself had faced, including Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. Wallis depicted the doomed poet on his deathbed in his 1856 painting, The Death of Chatterton, which English poet George Meredith modelled for, and was his first exhibited work. The painting was met with much praise and became one of the most reproduced pieces of the Victorian era in print form.

Art exists in a place not firmly tied to the realm of everyday living, it transcends the mundane and commonplace, and speaks to the furthest recesses of the soul. This naturally plays a huge part of why the act of suicide is usually more accepted when being depicted in a painting, than in society’s generally unfavorable view of the act itself.

 

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