Spooky Art: The Premature Burial by Antoine Joseph Wiertz
As a painter, Antoine Joseph Wiertz is relatively obscure, yet his work is incredibly devise and controversial. Wiertz-who is probably best defined as a Romantic painter, although that word doesn’t really describe his art-had a penchant for creating grotesque and horrifying scenes. He seemed to be irresistibly drawn to the darker side of life, tackling gruesome subjects like suicide, cannibalism, and public executions.
Some critics find his work to be needlessly graphic, a gratuitous attempt to attract attention through gore and shock value. For example, one critic described the Wiertz museum of Brussels in the following words: “In recent years the Wiertz Museum has attracted an average of just ten visitors a day … The Belgian state is legally stuck with all 220 of his [Wiertz’] works-dreadful though most of them are-and an obligation to display them forever. … [Wiertz was] perhaps the worst painter to have a government-funded museum all to himself, at least in the free world ….”. However, others see his work as an unflinching look at the nasty realities of life. I tend toward the later view; although, I have to say that I find many of his paintings nauseating.
The Premature Burial is one example of his stomach-churning art. The painting depicts a shrouded figure clawing his way out of a casket, an expression of pure horror imprinted on his ghastly face. The coffin is labeled with the words “mort du cholera,” indicating that the inhabitant was killed (or not killed, as the case may be) by cholera. The coffin is surrounded by disarticulated bones and other caskets, indicating that the supposed cholera victim finds himself in a crypt or a morgue.
The Premature Burial might have been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story that bears the same title. However, it is equally likely that the piece is just an expression of psychological horror. The fear of premature burial was real and intense in the nineteenth century. Before the development of modern medical technology, it was surprisingly difficult to determine whether or not someone was actually dead (which is a horrifying thought). In fact, it wasn’t until 1846 that doctors started to use stethoscopes to listen for a heartbeat to confirm that the patient had died. According to my research, “it was not unheard of for an extremely ill person to fall into a coma or a stupor and to appear to observers to be dead. Bodies were often quickly buried, particularly in times of plague or cholera. There have been numerous tales, dating back to very early history, of the apparently dead spontaneously reviving and living on for extended periods of time.” The painting is the expression of a delirium dream, the most profound nightmare of every nineteenth century viewer.