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The Death Toll

Many artists met their deaths with the same violent intensity they brought to their lives, and a surprising number died in harsh circumstances. There are too many to list here, but I've picked out the deaths that I found the most poignant or disturbing.

The plague decimated Europe throughout the centuries, and the vast number of dead included Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, Andrea del Sarto and Correggio. Many claim that Caravaggio was also a victim; but seeing his masterpieces disappear on a boat he had just missed, running endlessly along the shore in the midday sun, and then collapsing with heatstroke sounds more like exhaustion and the lingering effects from a brutal attack he had recently endured. But who truly knows? HIs death, like his life, raises more questions than answers.

What we do know for certain is that Pissarro, Degas, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Honore Daumier died blind, which is even more tragic to think of the great masters of colour and portraiture losing their sight. Interestingly enough, Degas's vision was fading for some time and to help him with his work he used the newly invented photography, relying on stationery images that he could view close up. Although Gerrit Dou did not die entirely blind, his sight was so impaired that he could only see two inches in front of him. The drastic loss of vision was cause by decades of working on tiny pictures, in which his attention to detail became obsessive. An contemporary remarked that he took 'three days to paint a broom'. Not unreasonable, until you realise that the broom measured three inches.

The list of artists who died insane is also sobering; John Ruskin, Hugo van der Goes, John Sell Cotman, James Gillray and Edwin Landseer. The last was Queen Victoria's favourite painter, but his mental deterioration culminated in hallucinations, once mistaking his housekeeper for a chair and sitting on her. The sadness of de la Tour's decline seemed especially cruel. He was described as being 'lively, good humoured, but eccentric' his success as bountiful as his philanthropy, donating vast sums towards impoverished women in confinement and supporting disabled and ageing artists. But the case of Richard Dadd is perhaps the most disturbing. His extraordinary, over detailed, obsessive paintings convey something of his mania, and his unique talent was encouraged by the Director of the Bedlam Asylum where Dadd was committed after murdering his father.

Everyone knows the tragic list of artists who committed suicide, amongst them Antoine Gros, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Bassano, Mark Gertler and Van Gogh, but perhaps in this sad counting of the dead I should include some more unusual endings. Bloemart died in a duel; Diaz de la Pena died after being bitten by a snake; Gericault - always a lover of horses - died after falling from his favourite mount; and Murillo perished having lost his footing on the scaffolding where he was painting. Perhaps most unusual - but equally tragic - ending was that of Carel Fabritius. The most gifted of Rembrandt's pupils, he was destined to inherit the master's crown until he temporarily left Amsterdam to visit Delft, there he was caught in the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine in 1654, which destroyed Fabritius's studio, many of his paintings, and a quarter of the city.

This is 'The Goldfinch' the haunting image which reminds us of his talent. Short lived, but immortal.


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