Some Considerations of Western Painting's Depiction of Suicide

Pinarbasi S. O.

ART-SANAT, vol.10, pp.236-268, 2018 (ESCI) identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 10
  • Publication Date: 2018
  • Journal Name: ART-SANAT
  • Journal Indexes: Emerging Sources Citation Index (ESCI), TR DİZİN (ULAKBİM)
  • Page Numbers: pp.236-268
  • Istanbul University Affiliated: Yes


Since ancient times, suicide has been one artistic theme. Ajax, Pyramus, and Thisbe, for instance, are suicidal figures in Greek and Roman mythology. Because of his pride, Ajax killed himself with his sword. Ancient lovers Pyramus and Thisbe killed themselves because of a tragic misunderstanding. In Christianity, suicide is considered a sin, and Judas, Zimri, and Ahitophel are suicidal traitors in the Holy Bible. Samson and Abimelech killed themselves from pride and for revenge. Among these figures, however, Judas is the most painted: He hangs himself from "the Judas tree," and a demon takes his soul. Generally, artists painted him with an ugly face to represent his treason. Early renaissance painter Giotto described a new suicidal allegorical figure of despair in Scrovegni Chapel at Padua-outside of the Holy Bible and mythology-a female figure who hanged herself with a rope, with a demon appearing to take her soul. After Giotto, many suicidal paintings of women began to appear in Western art. These depict beautiful and virtuous women of history like Lucretia, Sophonisba, and Cleopatra. From the Renaissance until the 18th century, such paintings emphasized female beauty on the one hand and suicide on the other, causing suicide to be perceived as a weakness specific to women. In the 18th century, however, suicide again became an action specific to men because French neo-classical artists painted historical subjects. These artists' approach shows virtuous people choosing death for a noble cause and emphasizes death for an ideal. Thus in this period existed the first efforts to "idealize" suicide. In the 19th century, this idealization came to fruition, and suicide was exalted through two perspectives; one was suicide as a "romantic act." An example is the formally idealized depiction "Henry Wallis Chatterton's Death." The other perspective is exemplified in "Manet's Suicide," which presents suicide as simply an action; rather than sublimation or aesthetic idealization, there is antagonism. In the 20th century, artists between the two world wars also presented two perspectives on suicide. Some, like Otto Dix and George Grosz, were not serious, but caricatured the act. Another perspective was to iconize an ordinary person's suicide, as Andy Warhol did. In the 20th century artistic imagination, suicide was no longer a sin committed out of pride, from hopelessness, or for noble purposes, but simply as a way of ending ordinary human life.