This is how Sylvia Plath put it, hard and clear, in her last poem, "Edge": "The woman is perfected./ Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment,/ The illusion of a Greek necessity/ Flows in the scrolls of her toga,/ Her bare/ Feet seem to be saying:/ We have come so far, it is over.." Dead indeed. The bare feet suggest the slab, which makes "toga" only a fine word for a morgue shroud. And knowing what we do, about what the poet herself was about to do, we can't help reading these lines as an imaginary, anticipatory self-portrait, post mortem. The cause of death and of "the smile of accomplishment" is suicide.
It is a shocking poem, and not just because it's a suicide note. The corpse-portrait tends to shock us. Intimate close-up doesn't sit well with someone's dead body. The only time that a modern newspaper is happy to print a photo of a corpse's face is when the corpse belongs to an enemy who has recently been killed and whose death needs to be evidentially displayed. A classic case is the body of Che Guevara. A recent case is the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When the corpse is not that of an enemy, any image -or any image that can be recognised as an individual person - is dubious. To be a corpse is, so to speak, to be in the most undignified situation. To be pictured in this state is more compromising than to be pictured naked, or drunk, or on the lavatory. To publish an identifiable image of someone's corpse is considered an insult to the dead. It's not how most of us would wish to be seen or remembered.
As for a face-on portrait, that's more dubious still. Portraiture belongs to the living. It expects a face that can show feeling and character, can know it is looked at and can look back. To fill a portrait's frame with a dead head jams all our expectations of the genre. And someone who had a corpse-portrait on their wall would surely raise doubts, and eyebrows, too. The bereaved may well have pictures of their lost loved ones, but not of them dead. What would you call a person who kept and contemplated a picture of their spouse's corpse's face? What do we have the word "morbid" for?
But when Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, died suddenly at 33, her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, sent for an artist. Sir Anthony Van Dyck, a friend, arrived two days later. What sort of "sitting" he had isn't clear. He is supposed to have painted her where she lay. He knew the face already. Lady Venetia was a famous beauty, and he'd done her before.
Though only a few examples still remain, the deathbed portrait was not then an uncommon form of memorial. Someone died, you called the painter in. A corpse was not seen as such a terrible thing to be. In another, anonymous example from the same decade, the naturalist John Tradescant the Elder lies on his back, swaddled like a baby, ready for the grave, but with an expression of contentment and complacency - no less a great man, for all that.
Van Dyck's Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby is not exactly deathlike. It has no slab finality. The image leaves a doubt open, the ghost of a hope. Dead - or deeply, peacefully asleep? Perhaps that reflects the Christian's "sure and certain hope" of being resurrected after the Last Judgement, making slumber not a euphemism for death, but a true name for it, since we will rise again. Yet this isn't quite what the picture declares. The corpse may be borderline, but the implied trajectory is downward, and into nothing. Signs of life survive. The woman lies, pale and serene but glowing. Her cheeks are slightly rouged. Her tress of red hair is a trace of living sexiness. Her head rests in her hand, the traditional pose of melancholy thought, and of the dreamer. That's how biblical characters who are having visionary dreams (Jacob, Joseph) are pictured, head-in-hand. The gesture indicates something still going on.
Some corpse-portraits show the deceased tucked up to the neck and clearly horizontal. Here, the space is made vague. The bed is seen too close-up for a definite sense of its structure. There's just body and bedclothes. It allows the angle of view to be ambiguous. You can't tell for sure if the scene is seen on the level, or from above. You can't tell, in other words, whether this body is sitting up or lying flat. The diagonal slope that Lady Digby makes within this picture - near enough 45 degrees - keeps its options open.
But, pictorially, this slope lets her slide away. We see head and shoulders and forearm slipping into the sea of bedding that fills the frame. Pale flesh, into white shift and cap, into white sheets and pillows - her body disappears under and into these fabrics, becoming insubstantial. You can't tell what mound it makes beneath the bedclothes. It's lost in the flow, and the simple colour scheme, white and deep blue, make the watery metaphor explicit.
The image is composed like a container with a plughole. The dark bed-curtains and bedspread surround the sheets and pillows, but not completely. The white bedding has an exit at bottom left. It laps around the dead woman, embraces her, absorbs her and carries her off, to flow emptily out of the picture. She is portrayed, not stone dead, but as a life draining away, a gently fading presence, dreaming and dying together.
Of this portrait, her husband wrote: "This is the onely constant companion I now have... It standeth all day over against my chaire and table.. and all night when I goe into my chamber I sett it close to my beds side, and by the faint light of candle, me thinks I see her dead indeed."
Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) is, to the English, English (and knighted by Charles I), though in other places, this mobile Flemish painter has other names: Antoon, Antoine, Antonio. His lasting fame is for aristocratic portraiture. He coined the self-imagery of the Stuart court - the cool, sleep-eyed ladies framed in curls, the lanky, droopy knights with flowing hair, who assume superiority so unassumingly. It is political painting, and it did its job superbly. The king may have lost the Civil War, but afterwards there would always be Van Dyck's cavalier portraiture to win it back. There was no comparable art on the other side. The English revolution lacked its Jacques-Louis David.
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