Thomas Rowlandson's series of drawings about the dance of death is a striking and eerie representation of one of the most enduring themes in art history. The dance of death is a medieval allegory that depicts death as a skeletal figure leading a dance with people from all walks of life, reminding them of the inevitability of their mortality.
Rowlandson, an English artist and caricaturist who lived from 1756 to 1827, was known for his witty and often satirical depictions of contemporary society. In his series of drawings, he adapts the dance of death theme to the world of his time, portraying various characters from different social classes and professions, all dancing with death.
The series consists of 50 drawings, each depicting a different scene in which death appears as a central figure, leading the dance with his partners. The scenes are often humorous and ironic, but also carry a deeper message about the transience of human life.
In one drawing, for example, death is seen dancing with a gluttonous bishop, while in another, he is leading a group of fashionable ladies who are oblivious to their fate. In each case, Rowlandson uses his sharp wit and skillful draftsmanship to capture the essence of the character and their relationship with death.
What makes Rowlandson's series of drawings so interesting is not only their artistic merit but also their historical and cultural significance. The dance of death theme was popular in medieval Europe, and Rowlandson's adaptation of it reflects the changing attitudes towards death in the 18th century.
During this period, death was no longer seen as an all-consuming force that claimed people indiscriminately, but rather as a natural and inevitable part of life. This shift in attitude was reflected in the arts, with the dance of death motif being adapted to the tastes and sensibilities of the time.
Rowlandson's series of drawings is a testament to this trend, providing a humorous and insightful commentary on the changing social and cultural landscape of 18th century England. They also remind us of the universal human experience of mortality and the importance of embracing life while we can.
In conclusion, Thomas Rowlandson's series of drawings about the dance of death is a fascinating and important contribution to the history of art. Through his wit and skill, Rowlandson captures the essence of the dance of death theme and adapts it to the changing social and cultural landscape of his time. These drawings remind us of the importance of embracing life and cherishing the time we have, for as the dance of death reminds us, none of us are immune to the inevitability of our mortality.
In this illustration Death bursts in on a miser, even as the man tries to protect his now-useless hoard of money. The miser is a recurring motif in the Dance of Death and can be found even in Holbein's version. The message is clear: worldly riches avail you nothing in the face of the Grim Reaper.
This illustration, entitled the Coquette, depicts death as an elegant gentleman courting a young woman used to finery and attention. It signifies the transitory nature of beauty and youth. The illustration is notable for the way it depicts movement and the character of the young coquette, a member of the fashionable world.
In this illustration, entitled the Insurance Bureau, Death visits the world of office bureaucracy, commercial contracts and insurance. The locale is meaningful: nothing can insure you against Death. Over a long enough period of time everyone dies. The shocked look on the faces of the people conveys their shock at seeing the illusion of their world of managed risk evaporate.
Updated March 11, 2023