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Death in Art — Life's only guarantee

Memento Mori, vanitas, mortality — death is one of the most pervasive themes in art history. While many artworks celebrate afterlives in heaven or hell, death is most often referenced as grim reminder of numbered days, and a powerful motivator to live well while you can. Every culture has rituals surrounding death, appearing in artwork as icons and colors. Hourglasses and wilted flowers for the Dutch, the Cuckoo bird in Japan, the Totenkopf in Germany.

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A Funeral

Anna Ancher, 1891

After the Storm

Sarah Bernhardt, 1876

Ahasuerus at the End of the World

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, 1888

Camille Monet on her Deathbed

Claude Monet, 1879

Cleopatra

Giampietrino, 1524-1526

Crucifixion and Last Judgement

Jan Van Eyck, 1430-1440

Death and Life

Gustav Klimt, 1910-1915

Death of Constantine

1623-1625

Descent from the Cross

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633

Executions on the Third of May

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1814

Funeral and the Crescent

Ibrahim El-Salahi, 1963

Funerary Portrait of Jacques Damala

Sarah Bernhardt, 1889

Ghosts of the Forest

Marsden Hartley, 1938

Grave Circle A (Mycenae)

1600 BCE-1550 BCE

Grave Circle B (Mycenae)

1675 BCE-1550 BCE

Grave Mask from Grave Circle A

1600 BCE-1500 BCE

Hope 1

Gustav Klimt, 1903

In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht

Käthe Kollwitz, 1920

Lace Glove

Hippolyte Bayard, 1843-1846

Lady of Baza

350 BCE

Laocoön

El Greco, 1604-1614

Laocoön and His Sons

200 BCE

Mummy with an Inserted Panel Portrait of a Youth

80 CE-100 CE

The town was on fire, the quarter where the poor Jews lived. They carried the bed and the mattress, the mother and the babe at her feet, to a safe place at the other end of town. But, first of all, I was born dead.

My Life - Marc Chagall Autobiography: Chapter 1

Marc Chagall, 1922

Night

Ferdinand Hodler, 1890

Ophelia

John Everett Millais, 1851-1852

Ophelia

Sarah Bernhardt, 1880

Pentre Ifan Dolmen

3500 BCE

Red Hill and Bones

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1941

Ria Munk on her Deathbed

Gustav Klimt, 1912

Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa

140 BCE

Seaside Cemetery

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, 1897

Self-Portrait as Drowned Man

Hippolyte Bayard, 1840

Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man

James Ensor, 1891

Souls on the Banks of the Acheron

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, 1898

Still Life with Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells

Clara Peeters, 1611

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632

The Angel of Death

Evelyn De Morgan, 1881

The Assassination

James Ensor, 1890

The Bad Doctors

James Ensor, 1892

I am one of those gods, the Powers who effect the triumph of Osiris over his adversaries on the day of the Weighing of the Words : I am thy kinsman, Osiris.

The Book of the Dead

1550 BCE

The Burial at Ornans

Gustave Courbet, 1849-1850

The Death of Decius Mus

Peter Paul Rubens, 1616-1617

The death of Girardot in Bárbula

Cristóbal Rojas Poleo, 1883

The Death of Marat

Jacques-Louis David, 1793

The Death of Moses

Alexandre Cabanel, 1850

The Death of Sardanapalus

Eugène Delacroix, 1827

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian

Édouard Manet, 1867

The First and Last Communion

Cristóbal Rojas Poleo, 1888

The Last Look of John Donne

Marsden Hartley, 1940

More Themes in Art

Manifestos

Love

Getting out the skin

The Nude in Art