Art Spotlight: Böcklin's 'The Plague'

Art Spotlight: Böcklin's 'The Plague'
'The Plague,' 1898, by Arnold Bocklin DeAgostini/Getty

I've covered the work of Arnold Böcklin here before, most notably his "Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle" and "Isle of the Dead." Both works meditate on the intimacy of death and the crushing frailty of mortality -- a common theme in Böcklin's paintings. Much of this morbidity seems to stem from the death of his infant daughter Maria, though an air of the dark fantastic permeates much of his art.

Above we see Böcklin's 1898 painting "The Plague," completed the year before his death. Here, grim-faced death glides through city streets atop a repellent flying steed, miasma spewing from its maw as the rider lifts its soul-reaping sythe on high. As Marek H. Dominiczak points out in "Epidemics and Fear," the woman in the gold-embroidered dress stands out against her grim surroundings, conveying that even the affluent are touched by the ravages of communicable disease and the terror of impermanence.

It's important to place this painting in the timeline of European history. This was the the century of the Industrial Revolution, a time in which the rapid population shift to cities also produced ideal crowded and squalid breeding grounds for epidemic diseases such as cholera, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.