10 Artists with the Most Horrifying Works of Art
The Apparition (1876)
10. Gustave Moreau (1826 - 1898)
Moreau was a symbolist painter. Symbolism, a particularly French movement, has always had one eye on the horrific. The literary symbolists, for instance, were enamored of Poe. They also thought very much of Moreau. One painting in particular, The Apparition, depicts the floating severed head of John the Baptist appearing to Salome in King Herod's court. Blood pours from John's neck as he stares at Salome open-mouthed, a tear running down one cheek. Blood stains the floor; the executioner rests upon his sword in the background; and Salome, as one might imagine, is terrified. Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote a lengthy passage on the painting in his novel À Rebours, concluding, "In this insensate and pitiless image, in this innocent and dangerous idol, the eroticism and terror of mankind were depicted. The tall lotus had disappeared, the goddess had vanished; a frightful nightmare now stifled the woman, dizzied by the whirlwind of the dance, hypnotized and petrified by terror."
The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea (1805)
9. William Blake (1757 - 1827)
Blake was a unique man, a Romantic poet with an invented mythology influenced by the Bible, various mythologies, apocalyptic literature and of course the visions he claimed to receive from childhood. He frequently illustrated his poetry with gorgeous and sometimes disturbing watercolors. He was also commissioned to illustrate other works, such as Dante's Divine Comedy and the Bible. It was in his illustrations of the Bible, and naturally the Book of Revelation, the Blake produced his famous Great Red Dragon illustrations. The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea (right) depicts the Dragon, humanoid in form with his massive star wings spread out behind him spangled with stars as if to depict the cosmic force of his evil power; he's looking down with his several horned heads at the Beast rising from the sea, who is holding a sword and a sceptre, is green in colour and also has several heads, distinctly less human than the Dragon. The other illustrations in the series are The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, which depicts the Dragon with its back to the viewer looming over the woman; The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, which depicts the Dragon floating above the woman waiting to eat her child; and finally The Number of the Beast is 666, which depicts the Dragon on a rock, his main head flaming and looking skyward while the Beast sits, with his back turned to us, pointing left, and beneath the Dragon's rock is a giant, golden calf and multitudes of people bowed in prayer.
Knight, Death and the Devil (1513)
8. Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528)
Dürer is a German artist best known for his amazing woodcut prints. Amongst these were his woodcuts of the apocalypse, a series of fifteen graphic illustrations of the Book of Revelation. And perhaps his most acclaimed is a trilogy of sorts on Medieval notions of virtue: theological, intellectual and moral. The latter of which, moral virtue, became the frightening Knight, Death and the Devil. Knight depicts a rider looking straight forward and sticking on the path (with his faithful if odd-looking dog) lined though it be with grim, nearly-dead trees while a variety of horrors try to steer him from his path. Satan lurks behind the rider as a snouted, one-horned creature with a spear and cloying smile. Riding alongside him is Death, a dessicated and rotten figure, holding up an hourglass to remind the knight of the shortness of life and presumably tempt him to 'live it up.' Underhoof is a skull and a lizard scurrying in the opposite direction of the knight. It was generally thought by Dürer's contemporaries that he was illustrating Erasmus of Rotterdam's vision of the Christian knight from his Enchiridion militis Christiani, "all of those spooks and phantoms which come upon you as if you were in the very gorges of Hades must be deemed for naught... Look not behind thee."
The Comedy of Death (1854)
7. Rodolphe Bresdin (1822 - 1885)
Bresdin was an eccentric and not terribly successful artist specializing in baroque, Bosch-like engravings with the visionary flavor of William Blake. As a teacher, he counted Odilon Redon amongst his students for some time and hence his influence on the symbolist movement. Although most of his paintings have a grotesque, dark quality, The Comedy of Death is certainly the crowning achievement. In Comedy Bresdin depicts a hermit busy at prayer in his cave, while at the edge of a swampish pool of sorts an emaciated man is dying unaided. The landscape around these two is beset by nightmarish terrors: skulls and ribcages litter the land, cackling skeletons are up in the impossibly contorted trees, from the left comes a flying Jesus, and birds with rat heads lurk in the arterial thickets. Huysmans described Bresdin's work as "rather like the work of a primitive or an Albert Dürer of sorts, composed under the influence of opium."
The Haunting (1893)
6. Odilon Redon (1840 - 1916)
Redon was another French Symbolist painter whose best work is in pastel. Although his late career has fascinating works, all in colour, it's primarily his earlier works that are of interest here. It would be arbitary to single any one of Redon's works out as well. There is a whole array of truly bizarre and creepy imagery: a smiling spider, a crying spider with a human face, a set of teeth appearing over a set of books, a giant eye appearing over a courtyard as two people cower below, a cactus with a face, plants whose bulbs are human heads, and much more. The Haunting is the most blatantly frightening work, given the subject matter. It depicts a woman in white standing in pure dark. Appearing around her are impish spirits in grotesque shapes and serpentine bodies watching her from the darkness. The nondescript environment captures the essence of a nightmare; the feeling of eyes upon one's back from the unseen regions is palpable.
Figure with Meat (1954)
5. Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992)
In Céline's semi-autobiographical novel Journey to the End of the Night, he describes a colonel's torn-open belly, "All that tangled meat was bleeding profusely." His surrogate character runs back to the camp and describes what he sees as the soldiers are fed meat, "On sacks and tent cloths spread out on the grass there were pounds and pounds of guts, chunks of white and yellow fat, disemboweled sheep with their organs every which way, oozing intricate little rivulets into the grass... The squadrons were fighting tooth and nail over the innards, especially the kidneys, and all around them swarms of flies such as one sees only on such occasions..." Thus were the new horrors of war. The post-war period was an era in which artists and intellectuals tried in their respective media to find some way of dealing with the trauma of the World Wars. It produced the philosophy of existentialism, trying to find a place for humanity in an absurd universe. Francis Bacon was perhaps the epitome of a post-war artist. HIs paintings depict a tortured, screaming human world, channeling all the horror to be found in Celine's novel into images. Often basing his paintings on those of the Old Masters, like Velazquz, he contorts the figures found within them and streaks, like claw marks, the whole painting, as if tearing at the world itself. One of the most stunning of these is Figure with Meat. In Figure, Bacon takes Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, an enthroned, noble, powerful-looking man in red satins and turns his glorious throne into a dark wooden chair, which the Pope clutches with his knob-like hand; his eyes have become empty, deformed sockets, his skin rotten, his mouth opened in a scream, and behind him a halo formed by two hanging slabs of meat.
Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)
4. William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905)
Unlike many of the others on this list, Bouguereau's horrifying painting was a one-off. A highly traditional painter, he naturally turned his attention to classical subjects, which included Dante. Of all the scenes in Dante's Divine Comedy to depict, he curiously chose the Fifth Circle of Hell, where the wrathful are destined to fight eternally on the surface of the river Styx while the slothful watch on from beneath the surface. In Dante and Virgil in Hell, Bouguereau depicts these events with photorealism. The crimson 'sky' of Hell glows hot in the background and in the foreground two naked men in vicious combat, one biting the other's neck vampire-like. Dante and Virgil watch the fighters in horror. Behind them the slothful writhe and watch on. Flying in the crimson sky is a winged demon, watching with a satisfied grin Dante and Virgil's horror, perhaps proud of his handiwork.
Illustration from Martyrs Mirror (1685)
3. Jan Luyken (1649 - 1712)
Jan Luyken is a fascinating case. A fanatical Calvinist Christian since a religious experience early in life, Luyken used to pray, read and do penance obsessively, after which he would compose moralistic poetry, his mind full of the sufferings of Christ and martyrs. A masterful engraver, he was asked to make some plates to illustrate a book called Martyrs Mirror, a pious text about the lives of the martyrs. For Luyken's fertile if perverted mind, this became a barrage of images of horrible tortures and excruciating deaths suffered by martyrs throughout history: a half-cooked man is tossed alive to animals to eat, a man is cooked in a giant cow-shaped oven, hot coals are applied to a man's bound feet, and various burnings, crucifixions, spearings. Huysmans, in À Rebours, writes of Luyken's work, "These pictures, full of abominable fancies, reeking of burnt flesh, dripping with blood, echoing with screams and curses made [one's] flesh creep..." There is a fervent intensity and attention to detail--excruciating detail--that makes Luyken's prints truly some of the most horrifying works of art in history.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503 - 1504)
2. Hieronymus Bosch (1453 - 1516)
Bosch hardly requires introduction. The Dutch painter was truly sui generis. A surrealist amongst the Old Masters, he painted several works of horrific imagery. Many were very busy crowd scenes full of surreal, frightening events, as in The Temptations of St. Anthony, where one can see, amongst other things, a nun trapped inside a giant fish ridden by a man whose head is a bird in a cage, a man leading a bipedal reptilian creature, and a giant plucked and gutted turkey in shoes ridden by an imp holding a shield--all to distract St. Anthony from the holy path. He also painted some simpler works, such as The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, in which a man is trepanned by an ignorant doctor wearing a funnel as a nun balancing a book on her head gazes upon the operation in boredom. Bosch's masterpiece, however, is The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Hell panel of which would be quite impossible to describe in full. To the right one can see a detail of the Hell panel in which a bird-headed monster devours a human while sitting on a highchair, under which is a sphere containing a person, whose legs dangle over a pit into which a man is forced to vomit by an imp and another man defecates snowballs; meanwhile a naked man is forced to play a brass instrument, in which another man appears to be trapped, with his anus. Bosch's paintings of Hell are frightening and incomprehensible enough to have probably converted a few souls to Christianity.
Saturn Devouring His Son (1819 - 1823)
1. Francisco Goya (1746 - 1828)
Goya, the great Spanish painter and last of the old masters, shocked by near-fatal illness into a fear of death and bitter at the state chaotic state of the world, composed his famous Black Paintings directly onto the walls of his home. These Black Paintings depicted imagery of evil both natural (wars) and supernatural (witchcraft). One of these paintings, The Great He-Goat, shows a grotesque collection of witches gathered around a black, goat-headed demon. The most famous of these paintings, however, and what this writer believes to be the most frightening, horrifying painting ever conceived, is Saturn Devouring His Son. The Greek myth is familiar to most: Saturn, afraid of being dethroned, began devouring all of his children. This dual act of infanticide and cannibalism is depicted in the most grim manner possibly by Goya. The giant Saturn, with spidery, bronze limbs stands in darkness gripping the body of his son. One can see his fingers digging into the back. The head and one arm has already been eaten. Saturn's mouth is opened wide as he devours the second arm. His eyes bulge in murderous madness. Such primal and visceral horror is, thankfully perhaps, not to be equalled thus far in art history.
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand. Journey to the End of Night. Trans. by Ralph Manheim. New York, NY: New Directions, 1983.
Huysmans, J.-K. Against Nature. Trans. by Robert Baldick. New York, NY: Penguin, 1959.
Panofsky, Erwin. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955.