A Brief Survey of Art History’s Most Macabre Paintings

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It was today in 1793 that Girondist sympathizer Charlotte Corday assassinated French revolutionary leader and radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat while he was taking a bath. The stabbing was memorialized in Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting, The Death of Marat, depicting Marat as a martyr on par with the Pietàs of classical painting, but artists like Edvard Munch created a much bloodier version of the events (featured, below). Art history is full of beautifully rendered paintings depicting gruesome acts and macabre scenarios. Here are ten you won’t soon forget.

Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat, 1907

Jacques-Louis David’s famous interpretation of the death of Marat was painted in an idealized manner, further contributing to the revolutionary leader’s status as a martyr. But in 1907, troubled Norwegian painter and printmaker Edvard Munch created a frenzied interpretation of the murder, setting it in a bed. This new milieu, along with a nude figure representing Charlotte Corday, gave the work a strange sexual tone — one full of vulnerability and shame. The bloodied sheets, wild mark-making, and mottled flesh tones of Marat’s corpse (he suffered from a debilitating skin disease, which David’s painting overlooked) added a gruesome realism and frenetic energy missing from previous versions. The painting was a personal allegory, too. Munch felt betrayed by former lover Tulla Larsen, who abandoned him when he became increasingly disturbed, injuring himself in an accidental shooting.

Théodore Géricault’s Morgue Studies

Pioneering French Romantic artist Théodore Géricault is best known for painting The Raft of the Medusa. The over-life-sized artwork depicts the survivors of a real-life shipwreck attempting to escape the scene, signaling to a ship on the horizon. The incident itself was devastating (those set adrift resorted to cannibalism, and only 15 of 147 people on the raft made it). The accident became a public spectacle and scandal due to an inept captain who abandoned crew and passengers, and an attempted cover up by political officials. Hoping to launch his career, Géricault set about painting the aftermath of the accident with obsessive dedication. His studies for the final work were based on interviews with survivors, scale models of the raft, and trips to the morgue and hospitals. Human remains were often loaned to artists for anatomical study, and Géricault soon amassed a collection of putrid body parts to help inform his work. His neighbors didn’t take kindly to the smell. The final painting caused a controversy when it appeared at the 1819 Paris Salon. However, most of his studies of those rotting corpses remained in his studio until his death.

Francis Bacon, Figure with Meat

Francis Bacon’s grotesque portraits of Pope Innocent X have been a topic of fascination since they first appeared in the 1950s. Bacon created more than 45 variants of Diego Velázquez’s 1650 painting Portrait of Innocent X, distorting and “caging” the Pope. Figure with Meat found the Pope sitting between halves of a cow carcass (resembling morbid angel wings), reminiscent of the 17th-century vanitas paintings — dark still lifes that symbolized the dangers of earthly pleasures. “Bacon was a very overt atheist. Maybe this seems irrelevant, but you only have to visit an Old Master painting collection — such as the Doria Pamphilj palace in Rome where the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that obsessed Bacon can be found — to see that oil painting and religion are intimates,” Jonathan Jones wrote of the artist. “All those Madonnas, all those Popes. Bacon took the spiritual heart of high culture and stuck a knife right through it.”

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil in Hell

Hellfire, brimstone, and eternal damnation reign in the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem the Divine Comedy, titled the Inferno. Prolific French traditionalist painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau captured a chilling scene set in the eighth circle of hell (filled with “falsifiers” and “counterfeiters”). In the painting, Dante, the narrator, with Virgil, the Roman poet who guides him through the journey, watch a fight between the damned — in this case, the heretic and alchemist Capocchio, who is bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi, who tried to claim a dead man’s inheritance. But we’ll let Dante’s words speak for themselves: “They smote each other not alone with hands,/ But with the head and with the breast and feet,/ Tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.”

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes

Painting the beheading of Assyrian general Holofernes by the widow Judith (yes, that one) was all the rage back in the 15th and 16th centuries. Caravaggio’s 1598-99 depiction became the standard, revered for its drama, naturalism, and an ambivalent, disgusted Judith (who was devoted to God, but played the seductress to kill the enemy of her people). Painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1611–12 version of the events was inspired by Caravaggio’s masterpiece, but showed a more violent and physical struggle. Her Judith is more determined to chop off Holofernes’ head. Gentileschi used herself as the model for the biblical heroine and her mentor, Agostino Tassi, as the model for Holofernes. In 1612, Tassi was convicted of raping the artist.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death

An army of skeletons destroys the living and ravages the land in The Triumph of Death, which hangs directly across from Hieronymus Bosch ‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado. Art critic Richard B. Woodward writes:

Bruegel’s smaller (46-inch-by-64-inch) single-panel masterpiece has a [grim] message. There is no escape from the scourge of war. The men and women in the fire-strewn landscape try to fend off death’s henchmen with sword and spear. But the living are badly outnumbered, their efforts futile. Not only is death inevitable and unsparing of society high and low, a lesson Medieval and Renaissance artists never tired of teaching their audiences, but death is perversely creative as well. The variety of tortures in store for the human race during wartime is endless. The hallucination is as intense and action-packed as Bosch’s, but the cold-bloodedness of the violence leaves no room for whimsy.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

He captured scenes of war and contemporary historical upheavals, but in his later years, the embittered Francisco Goya’s work grew much darker. Goya barely survived illness and lost faith in the Spanish government. He channeled his discontent and fear into his Black Paintings. Painted directly on the walls of his home between 1819 and 1823, Goya’s 14 works are haunting and reflect his inner turmoil. Saturn Devouring His Son depicts the morbid Greek myth about Saturn. The Titan feared his children would one day overthrow him, so he ate them after birth.

William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon Paintings

Cinema made us fearful of William Blake’s formidable watercolor series (Manhunter, Red Dragon), depicting the Great Red Dragon in various scenes from the Book of Revelation. But Blake’s works and the biblical tale are terrifying enough on their own:

Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.

Édouard Manet, Le Suicidé

Édouard Manet made waves at the 1865 Paris Salon when he displayed his version of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, depicting the reclining beauty as a courtesan. The artist continued to make a scene throughout his career, particularly with this grim painting of a suicide, completed between 1877 and 1881. Without giving us any context (heroic, blasphemous, or otherwise), Manet instead gives us a man’s slumped body, a pool of blood on a bed, and no blood spatter on the wall behind him. It’s a macabre mystery that has plagued critics and historians, especially since there’s a great deal of speculation about the man’s actual identity. PsyArt discusses various connections to the deaths of other artists and to Émile Zola.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

Painted with startling realism between 1520–22, this depiction of an emaciated Christ with putrefying flesh and open wounds would have been shocking for the time period. Michel Onfray discussed the work on the Tate’s website:

Art historians don’t know what place Holbein had in mind for his The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. A predella for an altarpiece? A free-standing work? A piece made to fit in a sepulchral niche? But the fact remains that the painting’s highly unusual dimensions (30.5 x 200 cm) make it a unique object in the history of iconography. In my eyes at least, because entering this work is like entering a coffin to see what’s happening inside. Which is nothing, apart from a dead body, a corpse — motionless for all eternity. But take a look at his face. This corpse doesn’t look as dead as all that. The mouth open, eyes too, you might just be able to hear, at least in a virtual sense, the final breath; you might guess the presence of the Holy Spirit. The viewer sees Christ seeing: he might also perceive what death has in store, because he’s staring at the heavens, while his soul is probably there already. No one has taken the trouble to close his mouth and his eyes. Or else Holbein wants to tell us that, even in death, Christ still looks and speaks. Perhaps.