During this time, artists delved into the depths of human emotion, mortality, and the shadows of the human psyche, giving birth to a fascinating era of art that thrived on chiaroscuro, dramatic contrasts, and profound symbolism.
Just as October invites us to delve into the supernatural and the mysterious, we take a closer look through some of the more macabre paintings in our collection, peeling back the layers of history to reveal the haunting dark themes in art, a perfect prelude to the eerie enchantment of Halloween.
Artists delved into the depths of human emotion, mortality, and the shadows of the human psyche, giving birth to a fascinating era of art that thrived on chiaroscuro, dramatic contrasts, and profound symbolism.
Cain and Abel, unknown Italian artist, c.1610
At six and a half feet in height, this vigorous and imposing composition, painted around 1610, by an Italian follower of Caravaggio, has an impactful presence in Russborough’s Saloon. It depicts the first murder in human history according to the Bible: a fratricide motivated by jealousy between the sons of Adam and Eve. Seventeenth-century collectors and artists were fascinated by moral dramas culminating in violent action. The artist has skilfully employed chiaroscuro, a technique mastered by Caravaggio, to heighten the drama, with strong contrasts between light and dark elements creating a sense of volume and tension in this murder scene.
The Triumph of David, after Guercino, c.1680
Today visitors often ask why someone would want to display a very large painting of a beheading in their Drawing Room. No doubt this biblical scene is not as widely recognised as it was in 18th century, when the aspiring Joseph Leeson bought his copy of Guercino’s Triumph of David in Rome. The slaying of the Philistine giant, by the young shepherd David, with nothing more than a well-aimed rock from a sling, does indeed take a gruesome turn with the subsequent beheading depicted here.
Along with the general 17th century penchant for depictions of violence in art, we suspect that the socially ambitious Joseph Leeson may have been imparting something with this particular choice. Although wealthy, Joseph Leeson was a commoner with social ambition. The young shepherd David came from humble beginnings, he rose to become King of Israel and found a dynasty – a fitting hero.
The Death of Regalus, Claude Joseph Vernet after Salvador Rosa, 1745
Although ancient accounts do not discuss the actual method of Regulus’s execution, in 1650 Rosa depicted him about to be enclosed in a spike-studded barrel, which would be rolled down a hill causing Regulus to be impaled on the spikes. Regulus’s dignity in facing his death at enemy hands was considered a model of Stoicism, an ancient philosophy of self-denial that was revived by 17th-century European intellectuals.
The windswept, rocky setting and the figures’ emphatic gestures reflect the horror of the event. This seven feet wide painting was widely considered one of Rosa’s most ambitious and successful evocations of the sometimes-barbaric customs of the ancient world. The decision to by Leeson to commission an actual size copy from Vernet is not well understood, especially as an original work by Rosa could easily have been bought at that time. It is clear that he greatly admired the collection of the Palazzo Colonna, commissioning this and other copies of works that he saw there.