Death has been an inspiration for artists and the theme of major works of art throughout all history. You’ll find death and dying-themed artwork spanning all mediums from photography and oil on canvas to mixed medium, funerary art, death masks, and memento mori.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Contemporary Art About Death
- Modern Art About Death
- Renaissance Art About Death
- Famous Artists Who Created Art About Death
While today there is a movement to look at death in a more positive light, artists have wrestled with the cycle of life and death for eons. Art was one way to explore the subject of death and try to understand its role in life. Read on for an artistic perspective on death from artists from the Renaissance to today.
Contemporary Art About Death
The contemporary period for artwork ranges from 1900 through today. You’ll recognize several names in this list of contemporary artists who made a study in death on canvas or another medium.
1. Still Life with Skull, Leeks, and Pitcher by Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s cubist painting speaks about the brevity of life and death’s role in it with a skull surrounded by everyday objects such as a pitcher and leeks.
2. Death in the Sickroom by Edvard Munch
Death in the Sickroom is a highly personal piece of artwork, as it represents Munch’s sister’s death. In the painting, you can see each person in the sickroom overwhelmed with grief and dealing with it in their own way. No two people are interacting during the immediate aftermath of his sister’s pronouncement of death.
3. The Wake by Stephen Newton
This strikingly beautiful yet solemn oil on canvas painting presents a simple scene that is instantly recognizable. The coffin in the foreground on a low table is symbolic of death, and the viewer understands that there is a person inside without being told. Outside through the one window, the sky is blue and hills are green, depicting the way that life continues for those left behind.
4. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Steven Hirst
Hirst is a contemporary artist known for his installation artwork. This piece features a thirteen-foot tiger shark with its mouth open, as if ready to attack, suspended in a glass tank of formaldehyde. The installation was meant to inspire viewers to face their fears of death head-on, staring at a life-size version of a terrifying shark while grappling with the reality that it was very much deceased.
5. Still Life with Skull and Polaroid by David Ligare
This painting is a traditional contemplation of mortality or memento mori. The skull stands out in sharp contrast to the painted polaroid picture. A stark contrast is drawn between the beauty and brevity of life with the permanence and bleak nature of death.
6. It’s the End of the World as We Know It by Conor Walton
This painting takes a look at the ultimate triumph of death in the world. Walton shows a blow-up globe mostly deflated and misshapen, suggestive of the fact that death is a reality the world over and no one is exempt from experiencing it. The hourglass in the foreground suggests that the world is running out of time, and the fact that there is no sand in the top part of the hourglass would lead viewers to the conclusion that we are out of time.
A singular skull rests atop a stack of books about death, suggesting that death has ultimately won. The only things in the image are two pears that look strikingly normal, but even those are just a touch past perfect ripeness, suggesting an imminent rotting death of their own.
Modern Art About Death
The modern art period goes from around 1750 through the 1800s. It’s during this time that some of the most famous artists come on the scene. Here are several pieces of art with the theme of death from artists you’re sure to recognize.
7. Sorrowing Old Man at Eternity’s Gate by Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh’s classic style is on display in this heart-wrenching painting of a man consumed by grief. The sketch was based on a real person, a war veteran he knew. When van Gogh saw the man grieving, he was moved to paint him and capture the moment that compelled him to think about death and the brevity of life.
8. Inconsolable Grief by Ivan Kramskoy
This oil on canvas painting depicts an instantly recognizable scene. A lone widow stands in her home in a black mourning dress with a hanky held to her weary face. She is surrounded by funeral flowers and wreaths. This scene occurs after the burial of her husband as she ponders the future she has to face alone without the one she loves.
9. Saturn Devouring His Son by Fransisco Goya
Much of Goya’s artwork was dark in nature. Toward the end of his life, the themes of death and hell grew to take up much of his creative genius. In what some consider the most frightening pieces of artwork, Goya depicts Saturn devouring one of his sons.
10. Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story
Story was an American poet and sculptor whose most famous sculpture was created as a grave marker for his wife. The statue is of an angel, sculpted to lean over the grave marker as if overwhelmed by grief. This statue has been replicated many times over and placed on graves around the world.
11. The Death of Socrates by Jaques Louis David
This is one of the most famous paintings of Socrates, and it’s centered on the moment before he died. Socrates was sentenced to death for his forward-thinking and scientific arguments that went against the popular thought of his day. In the painting, Socrates can be seen holding the goblet of poison hemlock that was his death sentence while still teaching those within earshot.
12. Monastery Cemetery in the Snow by Caspar David Friedrich
Friedrich’s art largely centered around the place of humanity in the world. He depicted people as tiny beings in sweeping landscapes of majestic mountains and endless oceans. In this picture, Friedrich dealt with the theme of death and the passage of time.
We see a once-grand monastery reduced to rubble sitting among a wasteland of snow and graves. It could be said that the monastery became part of the graveyard, a type of headstone itself, reminiscent of lives no longer present and a testimony to the passage of time that takes us all.
Renaissance Art About Death
The Renaissance period ranges from the late 1300s through the 1600s. Death during this time period featured heavily in artwork, such as in the pieces listed below.
13. Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio
During the Renaissance period, much artwork centered around Biblical themes, such as this painting by Caravaggio. It shows the death of John the Baptist as ordered by the wife of Herod Antipas, Herodias. In the painting, John’s head is being held by Herodias’s daughter, Salome, on a golden charger. According to the scriptural account, John’s head was presented to Herodias by her daughter.
14. Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead During the Black Death
During the Middle Ages, the plague, or Black Death as it was known, was a sad and terrifying part of daily life. The sudden illness and subsequent death claimed thousands of lives and decimated entire towns. As such, it was frequently featured in the art of the time.
This painting shows as many coffins as there are people burying them. Each mourner wears a distinct look of grief and fear as they bury a loved one while they wonder how long before they, themselves, will be buried by another.
15. The Triumph of Death with the Dance of Death by Giacomo Borlone de Burchis
As the plague became ingrained in the mind and culture of Europeans during the Middle Ages, it eventually became featured prominently in artwork. Scenes ranged from serious and realistic and gruesome to dark and macabre.
This painting shows the living from all sectors of society walking with the dead on the way to a dance with the Queen of Death. Those near the Queen of Death beg for their lives by trying to offer up money and valuables. Death, however, is uninterested in such things and wants only their lives.
16. Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
This painting by famous Renaissance painter Brugel the Elder shows a grim scene that depicts death as an unstoppable army destroying a European town. Death can be representative of the plague here, in addition to war, famine, murder, and other illnesses. Death, represented as skeletons, are seen taking hold of the living and snuffing out their very life.
You can see people in every station of life in this painting, from kings to peasants and everyone in between. The artist clearly depicts that death stops for no one and regards no social status.
17. Doctor Schnabel von Rom by Paulus Fürst of Nuremberg
In one of the most chilling sketches from the 1600s, we see a common sight in the days of the Black Death. The etching depicts the common dress of doctors and those who sought to help the afflicted. The person is clothed in multiple layers in a head-to-toe outfit that conceals everything but their fingers. Their face is covered with a terrifying mask that looks like a bird beak with glass eyeholes.
Famous Artists Who Created Art About Death
Numerous artists throughout the centuries have contributed with artwork featuring death and dying. Here are a few of the most well-known artists who took their turn in creating art featuring death.
- Francisco de Goya: Goya was an artist who lived from 1746 to 1828. He was a Spanish painter and printmaker. From 1819 to 1823, he created the “Black Paintings” which featured dark and macabre images of death and hell.
- Vincent van Gogh: Van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who lived from 1853 to 1890. He is credited with creating some 2,100 paintings.
- Frida Kahlo: Kahlo was a Mexican painter who used art to wrestle with identity, death, gender, class, and Mexican society.
- Ivan Kramskoy: Kramskoy was a Russian painter and led the art movement in Russia from 1860-1880.
- Edvard Munch: Munch was a Norwegian painter who lived from 1863 to 1944. He is best known for his work titled The Scream. Much of his artwork touches on the themes of chronic illness, grieving, and death.
- Pablo Picasso: Picasso was a Spanish painter who lived from 1881 to 1973. He is one of the most well-known and influential artists of the 20th century.
Understanding Death Through Art
Death holds a mystery that many people struggle to understand. By exploring the theme of death through various artistic mediums, we come just a little closer to reconciling its role in our lives.
- Frank, Priscilla. “A Brief History of Artists Grappling with Loss and Death.” Culture and Arts, Huff Post, 6 December 2017. huffpost.com
- Kuspit, Donald. “Mortality: A Survey of Contemporary Death Art.” College of Arts and Sciences, American University, Washington D.C., 4 April 2020. american.edu