By the deathbed Edvard Munch 1915 Symbolist art painting 1915

“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch

1915 By the Deathbed (Fever) oil on canvas 174 x 230 cm Munch Museum, Oslo.jpg
“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch (1915)


Edvard Munch was an artist given to obsession over graphic notions: his most famous image, “The Scream,” actually had four different versions¹. Other compositions had dozens of versions in pastels, lithographs, oil paintings, and woodblocks. Insofar as Munch’s was an art of iteration, how can we discuss an isolated work? I propose here to focus on one such piece- his 1915 painting By the Deathbed– and draw in to a limited extent references to a few additional articulations of essentially the same compositions.


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In all of the versions of By the Deathbed, Munch situates a figure stretched out facing away from the viewer. A cluster of mourners crowd the side of the bed in each work, though the expressions of the mourners vary in each piece: in the pastel version, a feeling of deference to the deceased/deceasing pervades; in the oil paint version from 1895, we see the central male mourner (interestingly the character with the most detail infused into the image) in a more pleading mode. In all of the versions, grief is the predominant mood, with the ages of the female figures varying widely over the different pieces.

In the 1915 version of the painting, the version of the painting I’d like to focus on, Munch uses the same characters for the most part, but the mood and tenor of expressions is much more subtle and uncertain: the older male mourner holds his hands before him, with an expression that could be of deep prayerfulness, pleading (like the 1895 version), or even relief. It is harder to say with certainty what he expresses, and that makes this version of the painting perhaps the most accomplished one.

The nearest figure to the viewer- a female figure- has an almost other-worldly face and expression. She looks like a mask, a clown, or an opera actress highly made-up for the occasion. Her lips are tight and her emotions difficult to ascertain. She stretches her hand out intently, perhaps to grab the medicine bottle before her so as to keep herself preoccupied in the midst of the dreary scene. Perhaps the duties of caring for the dead/dying man falls to her as the others are lost in their own thoughts and feelings. The remaining figures are impossible to discern, as they lack normal human features. Their unnatural coloring says more about their mood than anything else- a woman has a bright red face, perhaps quarreling with the dead person or even with God; the man at her side’s green face betraying nausea and discontent.

One of the most interesting things about the piece is the wallpaper behind the group. Whereas some of the unease and tension of the composition in other versions of this painting comes from the strange perspective over the elongated body of the lying figure, in this piece from 1915, we see a warping and metaphysical distortion of space echoing from the man to the mourners. The pattern of the wallpaper unevenly melts upward and careens toward the mourners in increasingly dark and maroon tones. Interestingly, a common pigment name for that maroon color in Europe was “Caput Mortuum,” or “Death’s Head.”²

This 1915 version is not the only version of the composition to feature strange wallpaper- the pastel version from 1893 replaces the pattern of wallpaper for morbid, grotesque heads and skulls lining the wall. These figures seem to taunt the dying man as he crosses the threshold into death, many of them amused and smiling. This might suggest to us that Munch saw the melting wallpaper as the patched fiber of spiritual fabric surrounding the scene, warping or expanding as the metaphysical balance of the room changes with the death of the lying figure. This more subtle suggestion of the supernatural impact of a death and the prayers and grief of the survivors makes the 1915 version of the painting more compelling and inviting as a viewer.

In conclusion, it would not be fair to say that every successive iteration an artist makes of a core concept improves or enhances the idea. There are times when the purest expression of a graphic idea is the first expression. Nonetheless, the range of moods and experiences, as well as the mystical possibilities of the piece are more refined in this image of Munch’s. The viewer can, in this piece, find comfort, grief, and transcendence within it, whereas other versions focus on articulating one particular impression of the scene.

the pursuit Leon Spillaert Belgian symbolist painter of night and nocturnal painting

“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert

“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert (1910)


The Belgian painter Leon Spilliaert was an artist preoccupied by nocturnal themes- images of disorientation, loneliness, exuberance, etc, populate his oeuvre. The Pursuit is a unique painting among his work for a number of reasons. I want to draw attention to how this piece is both exemplary of Spilliaert’s style and exceptional for its darker motif and suggestive title.

The first thing about this image worth noting is that it indeed fits well within Spilliaert’s area of visual interest: The span of the road leading up to the bridge, the strange and elongated perspective, the use of a very narrow range of color yet a broad range of value (i.e. gradient of tone from light to dark), the peculiar and enchanting quality of evening/night-time light, and the effect of light on moving water are all classic motifs among his body of work. The eery effect of the perspective of the image, for example, fits in with both his fascination with exaggerated expanses of bare space and his taste for creating disorientation or discomfort. The two images below- Moon and Light and Dyke and Beach– illustrate his penchant for these themes, yet The Pursuit seems to bring them together in the same space.

“Moon and Light,” Leon Spilliaert (1909)


“Dyke and Beach,” Leon Spilliaert (1907)

What sets The Pursuit apart from much of his work is that while Spilliaert was typically content with a suggestion of uneasiness, fear, loneliness, and even menace in his works, both his use of the title “pursuit” and his inclusion of two figures chasing each other is more overtly assertive about the tension in the image. For example, Moon and Light might be seen as an expression of vertigo. At the same time, it might merely be a feeling of awe at a unique alignment of perspectival elements and colors.

In keeping with Spilliaert’s character as an artist, even with the suggestion of a chase through the night in a haunting and disconcerting space, the viewer is not certain what kind of pursuit is happening: it could be friends leaving the bar, drunkenly joking with each other; it could be unsupervised children playing in the twilight hour, bored as they wait for their supper; or it could be as sinister as a robber and his victim. As I’ve written before of Spilliaert in my article on his painting Nightthe playfulness with his audience about whether his work is brooding or buoyant elevates his work out of what might otherwise be moody and macabre into a unique space that is uncertain and requires inference and repeated engagement by the viewer to this day.

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PIERRE PUVIS DE CHAVANNES: "The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses"

PIERRE PUVIS DE CHAVANNES: “The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses”


The art of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes developed such a reputation for the measured nature of his art that the preeminent French Realist author and critic Emile Zola described it as “an art made of reason, passion, and will.” To the modern viewer, however, it is arguably reason that dominates Zola’s trio of descriptors. Puvis de Chavannes’ use of highly structured composition is remarkable among his peers in the community of Symbolist painters. When one compares his work The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses to the more frantic expressions of Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Odilon Redon, etc., his work stands out as far more calculated and restrained. Still, The Sacred Grove remains an exemplary accomplishment among the strain of Symbolist art that privileges the Ideal over the darker side of the Sublime.

Part of the reason Puvis de Chavannes’ work is identified as highly Idealistic is the carefully wrought structure of his work. The Sacred Grove is a prime example of this tendency. The placement of the Muses in this work is careful and deliberate to the aims of a pyramidal composition. I have written before of Puvis de Chavannes’ use of this device in my article on Young Girls by the Seaside. Though Young Girls used this pyramidal device to unique effect, the pyramid has often been used by artists such as Michelangelo and Piero Della Francesca  to evoke harmony, fortitude, and triumph.

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Puvis de Chavannes, “Girls by the Seaside”

The Sacred Grove and Girls by the Seaside were far from the only instances Puvis de Chavannes employed this design element:

Puvis de Chavannes, “Autumn”
The White Rock
Puvis de Chavannes, “The White Rock”

There are a number of further examples of Puvis de Chavannes using the pyramid in his arrangement of figures. Suffice to say, its use in The Sacred Grove was not an isolated incident among his oeuvre. I do not seek to level the charge at Puvis de Chavannes that he lacked compositional inventiveness per se. I prefer to ask the question, “what motivated Puvis de Chavannes to repeat his use of the pyramidal organization of figures so often?”


Twelve years prior to The Sacred Grove‘s undertaking in Lyon, France, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a treatise on criticism that can be of use in examining Puvis de Chavannes: The Birth of Tragedy. In it, Nietzsche supposes the existence of two discrete tendencies in artistic expression- the Apollonian, the impulse of harmony and order with a potentially unbending mathematical and logical tilt; and the Dionysian, or passionate and animated, perhaps to the point of wreckless. While these two strains were separate in Nietzsche’s mind, their synergy resulted tragedy, which he identified as the highest order of art.

Nietzsche’s observations are particularly salient in discussions of Puvis de Chavannes, as much of his art can be said to characterize that Apollonian quality of intellectual balance to the near exclusion of more chaotic yet passionate elements. Insofar as symmetry and order dominate The Sacred Grove, I propose that this piece is the high-water mark of Apollonian tendency in his oeuvre. Further, whereas Girls by the Seaside displays gestures of languid self-reflection, doubt, and ennui in its characters, The Sacred Grove situates its figures in markedly more contrived and rigid poses meant to convey unmistakable expressions of certainty, poise, and intellect. The idealism of The Sacred Grove is, in the end, remarkable for being so prima facie.

The Muses themselves- the subjects of The Sacred Grove– were in fact lead by Apollo in Classical mythology. In that context, it would seem natural that the Muses would epitomize a visually Apollonian quality. And yet other Symbolist artists occasionally explored a more melancholic or uncertain aspect of the Muses, such as Gustave Moreau did in his Hesiod and the Muse.

Gustave Moreau, “Hesiod and the Muse”

Beyond the lense of Nietzsche’s critical system, Puvis de Chavannes appears to approach Classicism of subject and style with a Platonistic inclination. Whereas a more tragic or comical view of the Classical Grecian gods might have suggested more lascivious or seductive characteristics in the Muses and their cohorts in this piece, Puvis de Chavannes proposes a harmonious society of enlightened and orderly figures that represents an Ideal to be glimpsed and perhaps pursued by man. These figures do not appear to be a part of the natural world that, in Puvis de Chavannes’ time, was increasingly fraught with strife and conflict.

We are left to conclude The Sacred Grove may seem out of place in the Symbolist context where uncertainty, exploration, anxiety, and tragedy were chief concerns to most of its proponents. What keeps it in company with the Symbolists of late 19th century is a longing to rebel against the rising tide of scientism and “reason” of contemporary French society. While there is a highly ordered and logical nature to this piece that dominates the mood of the painting, it does depict an antiquarian interpretation of the Ideal that proposes a perhaps Supernatural and decidedly transcendent animating force of the arts and culture which is entirely different from the Naturalistic and empirical aims of contemporaries such as Gustave Courbet, Emile Zola, and Honore de Balzac. That world of the Muses- as logically ordered as it may be- is still held out by virtue of its perfection beyond the visible. In this sense, it is moved by the Symbolist spirit.

Albert Pinkham Ryder: “Mother and Child”

Mother and Child, Albert Pinkham Ryder


The image of mother and child is an image of eminent importance and familiarity in the tradition of European painting. Aside from the quintessentially human nature of the subject, the mother and child has a unique role in European art due to the importance of the relationship between Mary and Jesus in the Christian religion (and particularly the Orthodox and Catholic traditions). Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Mother and Child is unique among both this broader genre and his own peers in the Symbolist school in its composition and ethos.

The importance of the Madonna and child imagery hardly needs recapitulation for most students of European art- the list of Renaissance artists who produced a variation on this theme is likely appreciably longer than the list of Renaissance artist who did not. Nonetheless, it’s important to note why that was the case. The fact is, the image of Mary- like most popular images from the Middle Ages onward- was popular as a painting subject because it was a popularly commissioned by the patrons of artists. It would be difficult to overstate the popularity of Mary, the mother of Jesus in European culture over the centuries. Beyond that, the brighter side of parenthood was one of the easier aspects of the Christian canon of imagery to depict- unlike the life, passion, etc. of Jesus, which was quite dramatic, Mary and Jesus seated together presented a subject which is both adequately devout and uniquely serene in nature.

I don’t want to get carried away with providing examples of Madonna and child imagery (that could be a blog unto itself!), but I’ll provide a couple of examples of this trope for reference- one from the early Renaissance painter Duccio and one from a later Italian painter Sandro Botticelli:

Sandro Botticelli

There is nothing about Albert Pinkham Ryder’s image of a mother and her child that explicitly references the Madonna and child tradition, as easy as it would be to imagine that he would anticipate his image being linked to that tradition. That said, his image is strikingly different from familiar variations on the broader theme of a mother and child. Whereas the image of a mother and child avails the opportunity to display both the tenderness of that relationship and the emotions of the mother in her facial expressions, Pinkham Ryder depicted his pair facing each other with back turned to the viewer. The focus of attention is not on a display of emotion itself.

The act of situating the subjects so that we cannot see their expressions introduces a new and intriguing dynamic to the image of mother and child: the viewer is left to imagine the look on the mother’s face. Is the child asleep? Is the woman comforting a crying child? This compositional device invites the agency of the viewer.

Bringing the viewer to starting-point of a departure of the imagination was the stock-and-trade of the Symbolist painter. As I stated in my introduction to my approach to Albert Pinkham Ryder,

“The labor of the Symbolist was to strategically situate the symbol as a touchstone- a marker at a crossroad or a fork in the road of aesthetic experience- to serve as a point of departure for the viewer into a deeper and more personal state of ineffable spiritual or psychological exploration.”

The journey to the heart of this image is the viewer’s to make- it is not proffered in the the manner of Botticelli and Duccio. This compositional device clearly links this piece to Symbolist tradition. An explicit example of this aim of the symbolist can be found Odilon Redon’s painting Winged Man:


Winged Man, Odilon Redon

In Redon’s piece, we are brought to the cliff of imagination. The eponymous winged man looks out toward the horizon, perhaps toward his goal. Or perhaps he looks inward as he prepares to launch into flight. He might be the legendary Icarus, in which case we wait in suspense and anticipation for the ultimate failure of the central figure. He might be an angel returning to the celestial realm. In any case, any and all of those possibilities are on the table, and the purpose of the image is not to tell us which presumption is correct. The point is to take us to the precipice.

While the approach and aims of Pinkham Ryder’s image may have much in common with Symbolist sensibilities, his choice of specific subject is anything but typical. The Symbolists approached femininity with trepidation and skepticism more often than not. One is more likely to find the Symbolist depicting Salomé- the decapitator of John the Baptist- than a mother and her child. Indeed, Gustave Moreau, the preeminent Symbolist, depicted Salomé many times. Felicien Rops, as I have noted previously, made a career of exploiting fears of the femme fatale archetype. Franz von Stuck took a less provocative approach than Rops, but essentially made the same kind of name for himself as a depictor of female ferociousness. In fact, the list of Symbolists who did not depict femme fatale imagery is, like our list of Renaissance painters who didn’t depict the Madonna and child, is much shorter than the list of those who did. The introduction of a female figure who is not in some way explicitly in tension with masculinity is somewhat of a departure from predominant trends in continental Symbolist art of the day. 

As I hope to illustrate in future essays on Albert Pinkham Ryder, he was adept at utilizing the animating spirit of the Symbolist and “decadent” styles coming out of Europe while maintaining a idiomatic and distinct body of subject matter. Decades after his time, images of the mother and child that employ similar tools of uncertainty and obscurantism started to proliferate: Dali, Picasso, Henry Moore, and Francis Picabia produced variations on the theme ranging from sympathetic to bizarre in character. In this way, we can see Pinkham Ryder here (as elsewhere) as somewhat of a bridge to the Modernist moment, where idioms of expression and subject took privilege over “accessibility” and familiarity of subject.

Albert Pinkham Ryder: A Precís of a Critical Approach

Over the years, when I’ve been asked who my favorite American painter is, I have consistently and unequivocally replied with Albert Pinkham Ryder.

In the past- reaching back to my undergraduate studies- I have written critical works focused almost exclusively on continental European art. I’ve decided to break with that tendency to discuss Pinkham Ryder because I find the current state of discourse about his work to be lacking. Specifically, his marked and unique link to European trends has often put him on the peripheries of the Symbolist cannon, while leaving him somewhat of an anomaly in the American painting world. This has lent the status quo of Pinkham Ryder criticism a sense of uncertainty. I hope to apply a concerted and definitive lense to what can be said of his work with certainty. To those ends, I will focus strictly on his paintings.

I have been working on a series of critical essays on Pinkham Ryder, and I wanted to reveal some of the structure of my approach to his work here, in this precís.

Albert Pinkham Ryder was such an interesting character that much of what one reads in the art history world about him tends to cover his persona and lifestyle: he was a hermit (though not an unkind or unfriendly one) who lived in a secluded yet grossly disorderly manner. We can imagine him being described as a “hoarder” by today’s standards. His painting habits were considered no less odd than his living conditions, even by contemporaries- his paintings often darkened and cracked within only a matter of years, prompting him to attempt restorations of some in his later years. He is and was a prime target for plagiarizing and forgery, and commentary on this matter is eminent in discussion of his current legacy.

My approach will discard as much of the above as possible. I will analyze his work piece by piece, endeavoring to delve to the heart of each work guided by the text of the work alone to what extent such is possible. For what is lacking in discussion of Pinkham Ryder’s work is an earnest critique of the subjects at hand, on their own terms.

To a limited extent, I will examine Pinkham Ryder’s work as a bridge to continental Gestalt that transcended mere trend following- namely, the unique manner in which he evoked both the Symbolist impulse and a distinct “modernism” in his enthusiastic contemporary community of collectors and critics.

For the most part, I will apply critical tools that also apply to the Symbolist movement. His tendency to reference classic, popular Symbolist tropes was overt, with paintings such as  Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens and The Flying Dutchman. This potentially cosmetic link to the broader Symbolist context is not the extent of his engagement with it. It is that tendency to place the trope (the “symbol,” in Symbolist parlance) at the very heart of the image that defines Symbolism itself. The labor of the Symbolist was to strategically situate the symbol as a touchstone- a marker at a crossroad or a fork in the road of aesthetic experience- to serve as a point of departure for the viewer into a deeper and more personal state of ineffable spiritual or psychological exploration. Pinkham Ryder was a savvy and studied employer of this Symbolist mode, and that, among many other factors, places him squarely within their camp.

In discussions of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Symbolist bonafides, there are typically two approaches: to look at his biographical and circumstantial engagement with European trends and to focus more narrowly on the specific visual language utilized in his art. I will focus on the latter approach, for both consistency with my broader enterprise of close-reading his works and because it avails more varied and nuanced avenues of critique. There is a strong potential for the former approach- the biographical one- to dissolve on further inspection: Pinkham Ryder’s remoteness from Paris and the Symbolist nomenclature-with its trappings of occasional reactionary, occultist, and effete sensibilities- makes him odd company with the likes of more recognizably Symbolist personae of Sâr Peladán and Stéphane Mallarmé. Further, he did not stick exclusively to more canonical Symbolist themes, subjects, and visual styles. Still, there is enough in his paintings to tie him to the broader Symbolist  tendency or impulse, if not necessarily to the narrower circle of nominal “Symbolists” that congregated in France and Belgium.

The area I will leave mostly untouched, beyond his biographical story, will be his place in the American art context. I will not seek to answer whether or not Pinkham Ryder was an artist of a discrete and unique “American” context. Whether or not his association with European thought displaces him from the more explicit current of a native “Americanism” is beyond the purview of my work, as fascinating and crucial as that question is. I emphasize that it is out of no contempt for that line of inquiry that I leave it to my peers to examine- it is simply beyond my expertise and capabilities at this time. As a student of European art primarily, it would seem unfair to try to determine what is and what is not unique to America and its distinct art world.

I look forward to many conversations on Albert Pinkham Ryder, and I hope you feel welcome to both engage in that conversation and offer any suggestions for specific works for me to cover in my critiques.


Précis of a Critical Approach to Max Ernst

Max Ernst, German pioneer of Dada and Surrealism, was an accomplished creator of new imageries and atmospheres. This is in no small part owing to his virulent aesthetic iconoclasm and technical innovation as an artist. His career was so marked by his ranking in the Surrealist nomenclature and lust for novelty that much of what is said about Ernst centers on these factors. I hope, in my approach to Ernst’s work, to take a different direction in focusing on close readings of the specific narratives in his individual works.

So many authors have effectively covered the tabloidism of Ernst’s life and gestalt that I will leave that territory to them. I could say the same of another critical hobby-horse of mine; the literary works of Gabriele D’annunzio, the larger than life poet and author of early 20th century Italy. He, too, is perhaps best known for the outlandish stories and gossip around his creative life. Even his most quintessentially Modernist work- Notturno- is perhaps best known in the English speaking world for having been authored on thin bands of paper by a hallucinatory and partially blind D’annunzio after a plane accident. It’s true lyrical innovations are often forgotten.

Andre Breton described Paolo Uccello as an early Surrealist or “Pre-Surrealist” for sharing the same spirit of experimentation, tolerance of disquieting imagery, oneiric guidance, and thematic preoccupations as the Surrealists. My own critical work has centered around a re-Modernist critique of the Symbolist era. Much like Breton’s fascination with Uccello (a fascination I have shared since childhood), I include Ernst in my critical purview as an artist of evocation. He, as the Symbolists did, experienced intriguing metaphysical states and realms and disocculted them. While I would not go so far as Breton to suggest Ernst was a “Late Symbolist,” I will apply every approach that I have used with the Symbolists to his works.

Sporadically (I wish that it were otherwise, dear reader, but it is still the busy season of work for me), critical essays will show up here on Coup de Des about Max Ernst fairly soon. I am very much looking forward to this, and I hope you are as well.