Art and Death

Art, for me, has always been two things. At its worst it is purely decorative (which, all things considered, isn’t so bad). At its best though I believe art is as close as a person can get to touching the divine. I don’t think we can understand god in any meaningful sense. Our brains simply aren’t capable. I use the example of my dog and mathematics. She gets two treats when we come home, but sometimes when we’re running low I give her one. She can clearly count to two, she follows me around the house wondering where the second one is. She is probably really proud of the fact that she can count to two. On the other hand she can’t do algebra or calculus and I doubt she is aware of the fact. For me, a human being’s understanding of god is like my dog counting to two. The reality is infinitely greater than anything we can imagine. The feeling of love (for lack of a better word) that comes with strong inspiration is, to me, as close as we will ever get. The surge of emotion a painter feels observing light on a withered old man, a beautiful young woman, or a Fiat Panda is us getting a small inkling of the vast beauty and power of what must be the divine.

With all of the metaphysical questions one deals with when confronted with the death of a loved one, my belief that my wife has gone somewhere which has something to do with this feeling gives me solace.

Art, for me, has never been a form of communication. Other artists I’ve spoken to find this strange. They say that is the main reason they create. I’ve just never seen it that way. I paint what I love, the world be damned. So it was interesting to me to see how communicative I found the art of others to be when mourning the death of my young wife.

These days people turn to online forums, therapy, counseling, and anti-depressants to deal with grief. Being the first of my friends to deal with a situation like this, I wasn’t really aware of the options and I looked to more traditional methods.

People say alcohol can be a crutch, I used it more like a wheelchair that first month. Even though being a functioning alcoholic in my profession is acceptable, if not encouraged, the problem with alcohol and grief is that the booze knocks the teeth out of the serotonin levels in your brain and the next day is much worse. Or so they say. The truth is that at least you feel o.k. part of the time. The real problem with alcohol for me is that it negatively affects my work. I think you could get away with being an alcoholic as a portraitist, but not as a landscape painter. The mornings are too important. Either way, I’ve toned it down lately.

I’m very thankful to have a fantastic set of friends. Both here in Florence and elsewhere around the world. It’s said your address book changes after the death of a spouse but my experience has been exactly the opposite. A few times I’ve had to hide from the concern, just to have a moment alone.

At the end of the day though, I found most of my consolation in art: Literature, music, sculpture and paintings.

When I was a kid I had to memorize the last paragraphs of James Joyce’s short story The Dead. It has always stuck with me. On one of my first nights alone in Florence we had one of our rare snows in the Mediterranean, I wondered if it was snowing on my wife’s grave across the Adriatic when I thought of the story. Poor Michael Furey, dead at 17, half my wife’s age.

Music is a wonderfully empathetic art form. I preferred the songs by widowers such as Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens, Blue Orchids and Katy Song by Mark Kozelek. Songs that don’t make any sense were, bizarrely, also of comfort. Songs like The Gardener by The Tallest Man on Earth, or Desolation Row by Bob Dylan (the Italian version).
There isn’t any sense to be made in the death of such a vibrant young woman.

Many painters have since written to me about their own loss of a loved one. At the beginning though I knew only of past artists who had lost wives and the art they left in their memory. I can’t say it made me feel better, but it did make me feel less alone.

Frank Duveneck was an American painter living in Florence in the 1880s. His wife, Elizabeth Boott, was the inspiration for Pansy Osmond in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (you can read more on their romance here).  They had also been married for three years when she passed away. He worked with a sculptor to create a monument for her. The original is here in the Allori cemetery in Florence. The monument was considered so beautiful that copies were made for the Met, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. They ask you not to take pictures in the Allori cemetery, but here is a photoof the Met version. I’ve visited the Allori version a couple of times recently and found it very moving.

lizzy boott Art and Death

Tomb Effigy of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. Frank Duveneck.

Arnold Böcklin was another foreign painter living in Florence. He was commissioned by a widow to paint an image of grief. The result is the Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel) and he painted five versions (Serge Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem with the same name after seeing it). The image is based on the cemetery in Piazza Donatello where his four year old daughter, Maria Anna, is buried. My studio looks onto the cemetery, but in the 12 years I’ve been there I had never been inside until now. I looked to see if he had done a monument for his daughter but it was stolen earlier in the century when the cemetery was abandoned.

isle of the dead Art and Death

Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel). Arnold Böcklin.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau buried four of his five children and a young wife. He painted his Pietà in after losing his 16-year-old son in 1876. For a man who must have suffered so much in his life, I find his work strangely lacking in emotion.

pieta Art and Death

Pietà. William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Claude Monet’s wife Camille died at 32. He was 38 and penniless, like me. I read that he blamed his poverty for Camille’s death, and it was part of the reason he focused on becoming so rich later in life. While I believe Alba was failed miserably by her doctors, I don’t know if more money would have necessarily saved her. By the time we knew what she had there wasn’t much that could have been done. Monet painted Camille on her deathbed, and kept it in his bedroom for the rest of his life as one of his most prized possessions.

camille monet Art and Death

Camille Monet on her Deathbed. Claude Monet.

I haven’t painted for the last 6 months, which is also why I haven’t had anything to blog about. I did a sculpture of Alba and another of our dog which will be re-cut in marble for her grave. I’ll post pictures when it’s finished.

From my talks with other artists, it seems that not being able to work is a normal reaction. It hasn’t really been my season anyways. I hope to hit the ground running in May when I have painting trips planned to Montalcino and the Val d’Arbia.

Art and Death was last modified: May 4th, 2013 by Marc Dalessio

31 comments

  1. Thinking of you Marc, and I’m wishing you peace. It may not get better, but it will get different.

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss-it is so hard to lose someone so young and vibrant. Our family lost two eighteen year olds within 6 months of each other two years ago. The anguish lessens but missing them doesn’t. All you can do is get through each day, one foot in front of the other. When you find you can paint again it will probably help. You’ll get there, although sometimes it will feel like you won’t. Terribly and wonderfully, life goes on. Hang in there.
    Rae

  3. Hi Mark,

    I found your blog while searching for artists and I’m amazed by your artwork. You are an exceptional artist and I see the love you have for your craft in your paintings.

    My heart sank when I discovered the news about your wife. This is a touching post and I’m so very sorry for your loss. My heart goes out to you. I realize there’s not much I can say to help, but I do know that things will get better. Hang in there and know that there are artists around the world thinking of you.

  4. As we were mourning the loss of our 7 year old grandson, my husband and I were in Venice. One day we were in a church and an old woman came in, lit a candle, and began to pray. Tears silently ran down her cheeks. We don’t know what her private grief was, but we found solace in sharing her sorrow. We extend a warm hand and a light touch on the shoulder to you and wish you well.

  5. Marc,my wife died of cancer last August. We had been together since 1972. I can’t stay focused for any length of time. I do spill the wine,( I didn’t know about that serotonan thing.) I am letting go of things, as I can’t continue the way it was. It’s overwhelming, it’s a tragety.
    I have always enjoyed your art. Your post on “Art & Death” is more than I’ve been able to do. I hope you,(and I) get through this as best we can.

  6. Hi Marc,
    Im so sorry for your loss. I can understand how difficult it is to work under the circumstances. There are days that im not sure i ever truly loved to draw or paint, but i remind myself that the pain is talking. I found for myself that there will be good days and bad days. I try to be kind and allow myself the right to grieve. I find when i stop fighting the pain and truly sit with it, it moves through me and i feel stronger than when i fight it. It is true that when i actually get back to the work, it grounds me (providing the work is going well). One step at a time and its ok if we stumble back a few, that is just the normal ebb and flow of the growth and healing process. There is no set timetable for healing, we are all so different with varying life experiences. You are not alone and i am so glad that you are surrounded by supportive friends.
    Sending you some sunshine on this cloudy day,
    S

  7. Marc ci vediamo spesso ma non è facile parlare…
    ho letto il tuo post e mi sono commossa moltissimo. Sai l’odore della morte quando lo senti da vicino non te o dimentichi tanto facilmente..io quando morì la mia sorellona di 18 anni ne avevo solo 13 e lì promisi a me stessa che non avrei amato più nessuno, perchè non volevo soffrire cosi tanto , gli anni della mia adolescenza li ho passati così in una famiglia distrutta dal dolore di una perdita imprevista,dipingevo per non pensare era l’unica cosa che riuscissi a fare la musica mi irritava il cibo non mi interessava e neanche gli amici ero e volevo solitudine e quello che mi rimaneva dentro era un gran senso di colpa … che cosa avevo fatto di buono per meritarmi di vivere? Stavo malissimo non riuscivo a vivere in quel mondo fatto di ricordi ..quindi sono scappata appena ho potuto .. questo mi ha aiutato e ho ripreso ad amare ma a volte la paura mi assale così violentemente che mi ci vuole tutta la buona razionalità per riprendere il controllo di me stessa….
    scusami quando ci vediamo parlo di cazzate e faccio la superficiale , perchè io non posso capire quello che sta succedendo dentro di te però ti sono vicino e il tempo , il tempo aiuta davvero a curare (anche se solo in parte) ogni tipo di ferita .
    Ora mi vado a fare un piantino in santa pace e poi comincio a lavorare.
    D

  8. Marc: Thank you for sharing your grief, baring your soul.
    We all face such loss and pain, often multiple times before
    we ourselves pass and leave the grieving to others.
    There is no analgesic for this sorrow but comfort comes
    from comradery, from the arts as you have said and from
    the passage of time. Love conquers all, even death.
    We send our sym-pathy. Ron

  9. Marc; That was a very beautiful and moving piece about your late wife and how it has affected you. Thank you for sharing this, for baring your soul. I can’t imagine what’s it’s like to lose someone so close as ones wife. My only experience with the loss of a loved one was my father about 2 years ago. The only drawings I ever did of him are in these small sketch books that I had with me in the hospital. I drew as he lay there days away from passing. I now look back on these small drawings of this man with an oxygen mask on his face and I find it so profound that these are the only drawings I ever did of him. I’m also glad that I did them and that it was just me and him in this room for a hour or so, alone and coming to terms with each other.

  10. Marc, I had been wondering how you were faring these last few months and was happy to see you are writing again. For me, grief is like the sea: swim against it and it will pull you under; swim with it and, eventually, you will get to shore.

  11. My only connection to you is a love of your paintings, but I feel the need to at least make this small gesture of sorrow for your heartbreaking loss. I am terribly sorry to have to read about this. Thank you for sharing so much of your work and your life with us.

    Good luck with your painting this summer.

  12. Marc,

    Thank you so much, for your honesty and openness. Having no real connection to you, other than some e-mail correspondence and a love of painting, I feel somewhat intrusive. This post has moved me to reflect on how blessed my life is. I am rich in love and beauty. I shall not complain ever again. From a brother-in-art, thank you.

  13. Marc, I’m hoping your work will carry you through these difficult times. This blog is important to a lot of people but you can only do what you can do, we all understand that. Take care.

  14. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Marc. They are moving and poignant. Reading them I couldn’t help but to think of my own losses throughout life. During those times when I’ve had a serious loss I didn’t make a whole lot of work. I would try to go to the studio but often had a hard time spending more than an hour or two. Often I couldn’t find the motivation at all. Eventually the pain from the loss and indifference to create started to subside.

    I can’t say how long it will take but in time things will improve, though that may seem hard to believe right now.

    Though we have never met we share the love of art and painting and we both understand loss in a profound way.

    My condolences Marc,

    -Carlo

  15. Even-though I don’t know you personally, I stumbled through your blog a few months back and read about your story. I am Albanian too, and I feel deeply moved by your loss. I wanted to offer my condolences and express total admiration for the tribute and respect you pay to your late wife. I can fathom the sense of loss after death, and I hope that you pass through this indispensable phase of grieving, to then give yourself room to honor her memory and her legacy through your art for her – for you.

    Take care and best of luck.

  16. Dear Marc,

    Thank you for sharing this…I’m moved to tears.
    Thank you for paying so close attention to this world… you, as all great artists do, are leading us closer to the truth.

    Inspired again,
    L

  17. I was reading up on Annigoni this morning after having the good fortune to learn about him from Brian MacNeil from the Angel Academy yesterday. As I read these words on Annigoni, I thought of how hard life’s loses are, the people that I have loved and lost too soon, and you in your grief.

    http://www.annigoni.info/old/presentazioneuk.htm

    This a Annigoni quote from that page and I found it to be true.

    “Even in his religious subjects, which despite his fundamental scepticism fascinated him to the extent that the whole cycle of his frescoes is dedicated to them, the human element predominates over the divine. Or rather, what characterises these works especially is man’s struggle to transcend pain through the instrument of a faith which remains, in the end, unattainable.”

    It isn’t faith that heals. It is time. I find that strangly enough life is more meaningful years after the loss because I have come to understand that life is magnificent and very short and before I watched a large part of myself die with them, I never really understood what it means to be alive I live my life more thoughtfully and fully in remembrance of my love.

  18. Hi Marc,
    I was moved to read “Art and Death” and that it touched so many people including myself.
    As always, sending you love and hoping life and paint are beginning to flow again.
    Hazel

  19. Marc,

    I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my father to kidney cancer just over a year ago, it was devastating, all the more so since his first doctor missed the critical diagnosis in time to do anything useful. I thank you for sharing your experience. Your insights are correct about alcohol. I suggest that routine may help, get back into the discipline of daily painting. Consider it a form of communication. I’ve had many conversations with my father since then out in the field. And when things are grim and you don’t know what to do, clean. It may not change anything, but it will remove stress and possibly, the order you create around you may help to sort your thoughts.

  20. so sorry to hear, Marc…and your thoughts wrestled, fleshed out here…are things many of us not yet having crossed that threshold imagine it may be. Thoughts…prayers…and may a glimpse of a greater sense of it all continue to unfold…

  21. Hi Marc,

    I’m a friend of Alex’s, was asking in on you & he told me you’d written this beautiful post. Maybe beautiful isn’t the right word, but honest & insightful & well spoken. Should I have a friend in a grieving period I’m sure I’ll think of this post & search it out to send their way. Though we’ve never met I was praying for you this winter as Alex filled me & am grateful to see the doors of travel, shows & classes that have opened up to you in this new season of summer.

    Cheers,
    Hilary

  22. Hi Marc,

    I am deeply touched by ‘Art and Death’.

    Sitting in a hotel room in Paris, far away from my daily routine, I wonder whether anyone who didn’t experience a Great Sorrow could ever grasp the sense of what you’re talking about.

    Lou

  23. Dear Marc, I am very touched about your openness and I can feel with you the loss of your lovely wife. I know, even when years are gone, it sometimes seems to be as if there exists no time, because the memory is very clear and feels so close. But thank god you are an artist and you have this very special connection to nature and maybe also to the mystic side of life. I don’t believe that there is any death, there is only another level, like a new birth. And I also realize when I am very quite and only be with myself, then I can feel this endless awareness and see that we can be everywhere. For me, being with art is like this.

    In the last weeks again and again I visited your blog and found new interesting things about your life and art. Thank you for sharing all this. I love your paintings and sculptures very much. You are a very special and kind person, and I wish one day to take part on one of your plein air workshops. Take care and enjoy what you do and belief that there are many angels around you.

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