Chilling Art: Five Potent Paintings About Death

How art can illuminate the darkness of dying

Christopher P Jones
6 min readJan 25, 2022

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Life and Death (1910–15) by Gustav Klimt. Oil on canvas. 180.5 × 200.5 cm. Leopold Museum, Vienna. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Paintings about death come in a fascinating variety of forms. Sometimes they are symbolic, drawing on long-established motifs — like islands, rivers, dark forests, skulls and skeletons — to get to the heart of our communal fears about death.

And sometimes they are literal depictions of a specific death, either a historical representation or an idealised description from a literary source.

Here I look at five works of art that each shines a unique light on the dark corners of death.

Life and Death (1910–15) by Gustav Klimt

Life and Death (1910–15) by Gustav Klimt. Oil on canvas. 180.5 × 200.5 cm. Leopold Museum, Vienna. Image source Wikimedia Commons

This remarkable image by Gustav Klimt, completed in 1915, captures the opposition between life and death in all its obscure anxieties.

A series of sleeping figures are shown on the right-hand side, representing the aspiration common to all humankind, to live in peace and tranquillity. All generations are shown, from baby to grandmother. They are interlaced with each other, wrapped in colourful blankets, with their eyes closed, innocent in their dreaming.

Meanwhile, Death lurks nearby. Represented by a grinning skeleton who stands tall and wizened, bearing a club with which to strike down one of the sleeping figures. The decoration of his cloak, covered with crosses — along with two circular symbols which may represent the universal male and female — is a depiction of a burial ground within his very being.

The painting makes use of Klimt’s unique approach to composition by using a two-dimensional background to provide an abstract setting, thereby universalising the allegory.

Isle of the Dead (1880) by Arnold Böcklin

Isle of the Dead (1880) by Arnold Böcklin. Oil on canvas. 110.9 × 156.4 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Arnold Böcklin was a Swiss painter working in the second half of the 19th century. His most famous work was the Isle of the

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