Monday, 13 June 2011

Bite 123: Henry Wallis - The Death of Chatterton, 1856

The Death of Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 91 x 60 cm, Tate Britain, London
"Cold penury repress'd his noble rage,
And froze the genial current of his soul.
Now prompts the Muse poetic lays,
And high my bosom beats with love of Praise!
But, Chatterton! methinks I hear thy name,
For cold my Fancy grows, and dead each Hope of Fame."
               - Samuel Taylor Coleridge (from Monody on the Death of Chatterton, 1790)
Martyred to Art, Chatterton's pale corpse, reminiscent of the Pietà, lies in his bohemian quarters, a vial of poison on the floor, fallen from his hand; his hair of fire symbolising the deep passion which has led him to take his own life.

An overflowing chest contains the remnants of the unrecognised poetry of this earnest young artist, torn in despair at his failure. A candle has only just gone out; the window above, open, to allow his soul to depart. Beyond is the distant city, the world which ignored this tragic poet, leading him to a drastic - yet 'noble' - decision.

"Without Art I am nothing."