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Glances at the Macabre - Halloween 2021 Edition

Halloween is at the end of the week and people will be celebrating all things creepy, scary, and the like. Just like any other theme you can imagine, horror and the macabre have a long-standing tradition in art. Throw in cultural ideologies and the exploration of the super natural, and you have a firm branch in the art family tree. From Rembrandt to Pollack, and many in between, there’s a long history of artists depicting disturbing subject matter in their work. So, what better time of the year to highlight some of my personal favorites than the week of Halloween!


But before we dive into those examples, let’s lay out some of motivations that play a part of that subject matter. There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m not going to write a dissertation on it, but I will touch upon a few of the more popular motivations behind the work.


Let start quickly from the beginning. I mean all the way back to the caves of Lascaux and the earliest know cave drawings. Individuals would etch and scratch out things they feared and things they couldn’t explain, along with the animals that they saw every day. Flash forward thousands of years later, Egyptians would portray deities as animal forms that would watch over your souls and shepherd your spirit into the afterlife.


Hell, 1485

By Hans Memling

Oil on wood


Moving to the Middle Ages, we’ll use this as the jumping off point. There’s probably nothing more of a driving force to inspire horror than Christianity. To be fair, There’s probably nothing more of a driving force for sheer beauty than Christianity as well. However, it’s Halloween so… With depictions of overwhelming guilt, eternal damnation, and vivid portrayals of hell, it is a deep dark well of endless of macabre subject matter.


Medusa, 1618

By Peter Paul Ruebens

Oil on canvas


Most other imagery dealing with horror and gore is usually broken into three groups. First group is categorized by all things supernatural and dealings with the occult. Cultural legends also fall into this category as well. Artists could depict mythological beasts and use a whole host of symbols to express frightful subject matter.


Saturn devouring his Children, 1819-1823

By Francisco Goya

Oil on Canvas


The second group is your garden variety blood, gore, and dismemberment. There is a basic subtext to the afore mentioned subject of ancient mythology and cultural folklore. There’s also an endless supply of decapitations, chopping of limbs and anatomical disemboweling.


The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632

By Rembrandt van Rijn

Oil on canvas, 85' x 66"


Dante and Virgil, 1850

By William Adolphe Bouguereau

Oil on canvas


Finally, there are those artists that are just good at executing creepy art that just haunts the viewer. There’s no blood or gore per say, but their treatment of color, figure and psychological context that draws in the viewer. And just like those gory slasher flicks, there are things you just can’t unsee.


Death Rides a Pale Horse, 1908

By Albert Pinkham Ryder

Oil on Canvas


I feel like I could have listed dozens of paintings, (and many other forms of art, from sculpture to literature), but I picked several of my personal favorites. I would also recommend a deeper dive on Odd Nerdrum and Francis Bacon, particularly, as they are artist that paint exquisitely disturbing but beautifully executed work. So, enjoy a quick peek at these nightmares as you cozy up with your pumpkin latte or hot cider.

Buried Alive, 1995-1996

By Odd Nerdrum

Oil on linen


Painting 1946, 1946

By Francis Bacon

Oil on canvas





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