Sleep and his Half-brother Death (1874) | Daily Prompt: The Artist’s Eye

Is there a painting or sculpture you’re drawn to? What does it say to you? Describe the experience. (Or, if art doesn’t speak to you, tell us why.)

Either I haven’t seen enough or there really isn’t much.

And what I am referring to is how the artists’ depictions of Death. I have seen many. They usually come in skeletal forms or in ominous, dark shapes and figures, hooded and cloaked and masked, wielding a scythe or some other bladed instrument or even an hourglass. And each one of them emphasizing one aspect: Death is fearsome.

Until I saw one particular work of John William Waterhouse.

Sleep and his Half-brother Death (1874)  by John William Waterhouse
Sleep and his Half-brother Death (1874) by John William Waterhouse

Here was Death, sitting up, eyes closed, on a bed. Next to him was his brother, Sleep. And both of them looking as human as the rest of us. No menacing eyes, no wicked sneers, no dark auras, no evil blades. It all looked like a frozen piece of memory about two human boys taking a nap. Or is it a nap?

On one of my researches, I found out that Waterhouse painted this piece when his two brothers died.

Art imitating life?

It’s not unusual to preserve a memory of the dead. It’s actually a practice some decades back to prop the deceased loved ones to a position that would make them look like they just fell asleep during the pictorial. And those photographs were compiled into albums that some called the book of the dead.

Sounds and looks macabre, even unappealing, doesn’t it?

Maybe that is why a great number of us—including those who aren’t artists—could never depict in whatever way Death as looking human. It is a part of our cycle that we dread and we hate. And to show something abhorrent as something like us is unimaginable, unacceptable. We could never accept Death. We could never see him as one of us.

Death is never human. Or so we’d like to believe.

33 Comments Add yours

  1. mobibrad says:

    I like the last sentence. It may draw fear to some people, but if we think that all of us shall go back to our Creator someday, it would help us to believe its humanity. It is how we fill up the remaining days that makes the difference at the end ^^

    Like

    1. Mati Serrano says:

      Yes, it’s not that we existed. It’s how we lived.
      Thanks for that!

      Like

  2. Enjoyed both the picture and your musings about it and death. As a Christian, I don’t fear death, although the methods by which one may die might be fearful. I’ve seen altars that have piles of skulls in them, which is more than a bit disconcerting. 🙂

    janet

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    1. Mati Serrano says:

      I could only imagine since I have yet to see one for myself.
      But even just their pictures could disturb you. Especially if you learn how they’re used.

      Like

  3. 1WriteWay says:

    I like the painting you chose and your thoughts on it. Death is one of us in that Death is part of us. If we could accept that, then perhaps we might be less fearful of Death.

    Like

    1. Mati Serrano says:

      Yes! I believe so too.
      It’s just strange that we fear less the uncertain than the inevitable.
      To each his own, I guess.

      Like

  4. Of course, death takes the form of the deceased loved one, I like your interpretation of Waterhouse’s interpretation 🙂 yes, post mortem portraits were a tradition a long time ago…great post, read you soon, Alexandra

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    1. Mati Serrano says:

      I read somewhere that it is the form of a deceased loved one that Death chooses when he’s to take someone. To lessen the fear, I guess.
      Thanks!

      Like

  5. i thought about choosing this, too. waterhouse is one of my favourite painters, mainly because he magically gets the light right and because of his many references to ancient mythology.
    anyway, i think that depictions depend on the cause of death that the artist witnessed. peaceful, sleeplike interpretations probably follow a slow, weakening death, while monstrous creatures are painted after battles or plagues. it’s a form of grief, i think.
    and after all, grief is for the living. there would be no healing without it.
    but i agree with you, especially on the last line. 🙂

    Like

    1. Mati Serrano says:

      I have seen a number of his works over the years and though I am not familiar with their titles, they have always arrested my gaze. I’ve always been in love with anything mythological.
      That is very possible. And I guess that’s why more prefer to pass that way: quiet and beautiful.
      “There would be no healing without it (grief).” I like that. Thanks!

      Like

  6. 1writeplace says:

    Beautiful…death looks pretty harmless here, but damn him!
    I do like the ideas you shared.
    Thank you.

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    1. Mati Serrano says:

      Beautiful and yet beware him.
      Thank you!

      Like

  7. Very interesting. Great post!!!

    Like

    1. Mati Serrano says:

      Thanks so much!

      Like

  8. I’ve never seen this painting before and I’m so glad that you featured it. Death was such a part of people’s lives in the past and so they memorialized it, whether in this painting by John William Waterhouse or via post-mortem photography of the Victorian era.

    I love your write up, too. Very insightful.

    Like

    1. Mati Serrano says:

      Indeed they did. Such photography may not sit well with us now but who are we to question such a method of memory preservation?
      Thank you.

      Like

      1. Back then it was the only way they could memorialize someone. Yesterday someone I don’t know just posted my dad’s cremation on Facebook. Talk about a memento mori! I have no words, and still don’t.

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        1. Mati Serrano says:

          Methods were quite limited.
          Re: cremation: yeah, that could render you speechless.

          Like

  9. orestgtd says:

    We fear it, yet death remains one of the certainties we are all bound to experience at some time.

    Like

    1. Mati Serrano says:

      It is one of his monikers after all. He is The Inevitable.

      Like

  10. The painting is gorgeous. Your thoughts are beautiful.

    Like

    1. Mati Serrano says:

      It does have a haunting quality to it.
      Thanks!

      Like

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