The Grim Reaper In Art And Storytelling

The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929
The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929

SLEEP AS A MINI DEATH

Adventures In Sleep from All In The Mind podcast

Scientists still don’t know why we need to sleep. Contrast that lack of full understanding with nutrition science, in which we fully understand why animals need to eat, how nutrition enters the blood stream, how it is metabolised and so on. Sleep remains far more mysterious.

But we do know more and more about sleep, partly thanks to people with disordered sleeping. Some people sleepwalk, drive cars and cook meals in their sleep. Because of this, we have come to understand that parts of the brain can be asleep while other parts remain fully awake. This also applies to the sleep deprived, who won’t notice that part of their brain is asleep while they are technically still ‘awake’, but they will know they’re not on top of their game.

The inverse of sleepwalking is sleep paralysis — a terrifying experience. This is where your brain is awake, but your body remains asleep. To make matters worse, this experience often goes hand in hand with the nightmarish visions in which dark figures seem to be creeping into the room.

In many ways, symbolically and experientially, sleep can feel like a form of death. Also, a common time to die is in the early hours, when metabolism plummets. People near death are at their most vulnerable at about four in the morning.

Visions of death near the bed are therefore commonly found in stories and art.

Death Listened to the Nightingale – The Nightingale, Edmund Dulac
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
Death Dealing Arrows (1903) - John Everett Millais
Death Dealing Arrows (1903) – John Everett Millais

La Thangue was well-known for his realist rustic scenes. Here, uncharacteristically, he introduces a symbolic dimension to his work. A mother discovers that her young daughter has died, presumably after an illness. At the same moment, a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, the traditional symbol of death, the ‘grim reaper’.This rather melodramatic treatment can be compared with the more grimly realistic picture of child death Hushed, by Frank Holl, also shown in this room.

Gallery label at The Tate, July 2007
Ingrid von Dardel (Swedish, daughter of painter Nils von Dardel, 1922-1962), Figure med hjärta (Character with heart), 1948, gouache on paper, 44,5 x 36,5 cm. Special collection
Eugene Grasset December calendar

The modern Grim Reaper is more often a man, but the Black Death was seen as an old woman walking the land, with a broom and a rake. Where she raked, some survived. Where she used the broom, everybody died. Old women are more common than old men, which probably accounts for much of the opprobrium directed at old women.

The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Charles Robinson
Charles Robinson
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865

Whenever folklore contains a scary old woman, later artists will always, always subvert the idea of witch-like power by depicting her as an alluring young woman.

Death and the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926)

Skeletons As Death

Not surprising, of course, that skeletons are associated with death.

The Symbolic Inverse of the Grim Reaper

In contemporary lore, death more often looks like a man. The painting below is a useful portrayal of symbolic opposites. Death is a malnourished male figure holding a scythe, whereas the inverse of death is a pregnant woman decorated in flowers and pears. The painter Ivar Arosenius did this painting three years before his own death. Perhaps he was contemplating his own demise.

Death & Life (1905) by Ivar Arosenius (1878 – 1909)
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935

STORIES WHICH PERSONIFY DEATH

Header illustration: René Bull (1872-1942) 1913 illustration for Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

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