The Impact on Art of Pandemics Past: A Visual Guide
By Madeline Brace
Content Warning: This article, the art it concerns and the articles linked below, feature potentially distressing subject matter including pandemics, terminal illness and bereavement.
It has become apparent over the past few months that pandemics leave an indelible and often devastating mark upon the arts. When plays cannot be performed, galleries not visited and musicians not patronised, there is an economic but also emotional consequence.
However, over the course of human history, plagues and diseases have come and gone and art has endured, often being transformed by it. Like many others, I have been thinking about this during the past year, and so for my first Yorker article I have compiled four of what I consider the most interesting artworks that evoke periods of plague.
Salvator Rosa, Human Frailty, c. 1656
Painted after an epidemic in 1656 that killed roughly half of Naples’ population, Rosa’s haunting image depicts his young son, who he lost to the pandemic, signing an agreement with a skeleton (symbolising death) that attests to the impermanence of life. But despite its tragic nature, this image is without a doubt beautiful, full of engaging detail and a remarkable use of dark and light.
For more information please visit: Jonathan Jones, ‘’Plague visionaries: how Rembrandt, Titian and Caravaggio tackled pestilence’’, The Guardian, Mar 17, 2020.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Saint Roch, c.1730–1735
St Roch (who lived in 13th century Italy) visited plague victims before succumbing to the disease himself, and for me this painting strongly evokes images of the key workers who have become ill from covid in the course of their tireless efforts to care for others. Tiepolo invites the viewer into a startling and painful moment of realisation, as the Saint sees perhaps for the first time a symptom of the plague on his own leg. This image is sad and mournful, but there is a great care and tenderness to Tiepolo’s rendering that confers the utmost respect.
For more information please visit: Tim Cornwell, ‘’The power of art during times of plague’, Art UK, Mar 25, 2020.
J. Bond Francisco, The Sick Child, 1893
In this painting J. Bond Francisco also depicts an unwell child. Sickness amongst children in the 19th century was commonplace and not so easily treatable, hence this painting’s enormous popularity when it was first displayed. The bleached out walls and suspended action lend to the tension of this image, the kind of tension that has likely become familiar for many people this past year. But this time there is a hopeful element that suggests the child may recover, surrounded as they are by the reassurance of medical instruments and the watchful eyes of their mother. Perhaps then this image is more on the subject of devotion than disease, allegorised by a parents love for their child.
For more information please visit: Betsy Broun, ‘’The Sick Child’’, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Feb 3, 2014.
Morton Schamberg, View of Rooftops, 1917
This photograph, taken from the rooftops of New York not long before the influenza epidemic that took the life of its creator, is I think of all of the artworks I’ve found the most strangely prescient. Were the photograph enhanced you could easily believe that it was taken today, and depicted a contemporary New York under lock down and shielding from Covid-19. It is a reminder of how disturbingly routine epidemics are in human history, and in many ways it makes me feel relieved that I am facing one today, with all of the developments of science and medical technology, and not 100 years ago.
For more information please visit: Anna Purna Kambhampaty, ‘’How Art Movements Tried to Make Sense of the World in the Wake of the 1918 Flu Pandemic’’, Time, May 2, 2020.
These works stand as a testament to the endurability of the arts, but for myself they are also a source of comfort. Although it can in no way make up for the enormity of the pain caused, at least we can see evidence here of human endurance in the face of disease.
I acknowledge that these artworks barely scratch the surface of all that is available, and this article is confined to only a few artists from Europe and North America. If you feel able (taking into account the distressing nature of the subject matter), I would recommend doing your own research into a truly fascinating genre.