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Death on a Pale Horse

Detroit Institute of Arts


The reviewer for Journal des Arts was impressed by Death, when West exhibited it in Paris during the very brief Peace of Amiens in 1802: 

“’This sketch reminds us of those many fine compositions with which Mr. West has enriched his country. We trace in it his acknowledged genius and enthusiasm. He has judiciously chosen the moment at which Death appears upon the earth. The poetical figure of scripture has received from his pencil an aspect still more terrible. Every thing in nature is devoured and destroyed: the innocent dove and the wily serpent are re-united by Death.

Mr. West has represented death by sword, under a ford of armed robbers pursuing the unfortunate over the country. Death by famine is represented under the symbol of a man, ghastly, ethereal, and digging with skinny fingers the barren soil for sustenance. Death by pestilence is represented by a woman expiring by the plague, one son already dead by her side, and another, somewhat older, flying into her arms. Death by wild beasts is represented by a group of men pursued by, and defending themselves against, lions and tigers, which at once destroy, and are in turns destroyed themselves

Such is the composition of Mr. West. The day of universal destruction is arrived: he is fully impressed by the idea, and his genius lends its force to his will

If Mr. West possessed the colouring of Reubens, his sketch would have produced an effect more decided; but he appears o have inclined more to the somber hues of Poussin; his designs have even some resemblance to those of this great master. The figure of Famine who digs the earth with her fingers, would have done honor to the French painter, and is as well designed as executed. We think that the figure of the woman expiring by the plague, having one son dead by her side, and another flying into her arms, somewhat reminds us of the group in the plague of the Philistines, by Poussin.’” 

Quoted in Morton D. Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime (New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 1986), 23-4.

Similar Subjects by Other Artists:

Philip de Loutherbourg, The Vision of the White Horse, 1798 (Tate, London)

William Blake, Death on a Pale Horse, c. 1800 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

About the Artist

Born: Springfield (now Swarthmore), PA, 10 October 1738
Died: London, 11 March 1820
Nationality: American