Michiel Sweerts (1618–64) was a Flemish painter who specialised in genre paintings, portraits, and allegorical paintings. He greater part of the 1640s in Rome, during which time there was an outbreak of plague in the city which inspired him to paint this scene.
Humans have always expressed a ‘fear of the end’ in literary and artistic terms. The first apocalypse stories in Western culture came to us from the Bible, with Noah’s Flood giving us the archetypal ‘last man’ or ‘small group of survivors’ motif that has persisted in many retellings of the end times.
The scene is one of confusion as dead bodies lay in the street. In this picture, however, God looks on from above—does he feel sympathy for the plague victims, has he caused it, or is he simply indifferent?
The social anarchy resulting from plague are obviously a mainstay of pop culture depictions; times of crisis often bring out the worst in humanity. Yet they can also bring out the best in humanity as well, and it is one human, at his best and most heroic, whom Antoine-Jean Gros decided to represent on canvas in 1804. The man was Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French.
Nicolas Poussin (1594–1655) was born in Normandy, France and received a basic education before running away to Paris at the age of eighteen to become an artist. Having spent some time in Paris under the tutelage of several French and Flemish artists where he honed his craft. Poussin specialised in painting religious scenes as well as depictions of the classical era.
Plague, or Yersinia pestis, has “plagued” humankind throughout history. Since at least the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 500s—and likely for much longer before that—it has claimed millions of lives. This section presents the voices of people throughout history who have recorded their experiences of the plague and who have also represented it in popular culture.
I concluded this was a case of genuine malignant cholera, and in consequence felt somewhat alarmed and anxious for the safety of the family. I examined the house, and found the walls dark-looking and damp. The whole place had an air of discomfort; the woman had been washing for two days previous, and had been drying her clothes in the house; damp stockings were hung around the bed place, and undried clothes on lines. I examined the close or yard, and found one wretched dirty old petty or closet for the whole pile of houses, and near to it some small houses where animals were kept, with much filth about them, and human excrement in the channel of the yard and near to the closet.