The Tragic, Poetic, and Ironic Ways in Which Artists Die

To paraphrase the Bible, all who live by the sword will die by the sword. The same might be said for artists who live by their dedication to art. While much is made of the sometimes arcane, iconoclastic, or bohemian ways in which artists live, there is also an undeniable fascination with the tragic, ironic, or even poetic ways in which they die. Death of Artists (2024), a new book by Jim Moske, who spent much of his career in the archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, assembles a haunting and hilarious revue of artist obituaries from 1906 to 1929, tracing the highly mixed results of their attempts to achieve immortality.

“What first sparked my interest in these obituaries is the grim poetry of their headlines, which I learned is typical of the brash editorial style of the early 20th century,” Moske told Hyperallergic. “For example — ‘TWO ARTISTS END LIFE WITH BULLET.’ Then, as I dug into the scrapbooks more deeply, I became fascinated by a contrast between obituaries for well-known artists of the day, which tend to be respectful and focus on life accomplishments, and those for obscure characters, which often emphasize strange aspects of their deaths.”

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Obituary of M. Modiglieni (not to be confused with Amedeo Modigliani)

These deaths run the gamut from penniless bohemians wasting away in their grottoes, untimely accidents, murders most foul, or diseases so far out of common circulation as to seem almost romantic in retrospect. There were, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, also a number of deaths by suicide. Arthur D’Hervilly, The Met curator who originally collected the obituaries, did not focus exclusively on deaths, scrapbooking any relevant news items related to artists of the era. But it was the oddly captivating language around the passing of artists that kept Moske turning pages through the pair of long-abandoned scrapbooks left by his predecessor.

“D’Hervilly worked in a great museum surrounded by masterpieces made by artists whose fame long outlived them, like Raphael and Vermeer,” said Moske.

“At the same time, he was himself an artist of minor talent, and a friend and supporter of a huge number of unsung New York creatives whose work he knew would never hang in a Met gallery,” Moske continued. “He collected obituaries of all of them — the famous and unknown alike — and ensured the names of even the most obscure of his time were preserved in The Met archives.”

These obituaries represent those who in some way merited inches of newspaper column in their own time, but many of them are now lost to history, proving that even the recognition gained during one’s lifetime may fade after death. The truly immortal are few, and perhaps only identifiable in long retrospect.

Some may even have their legacy burnished a little after death. Giorgio Vasari, who biographied Italian painter and architect Raphael, included the postmortem appraisal that the artist “pursued his amorous pleasures beyond all moderation” and that a particularly rigorous engagement in 1520 was “even more immoderate than usual,” after which Raphael was stricken with the fever that would take his life.

Lest this tale lead us to imagine that an arts writer possesses cosmic power to cement an artist’s reputation, an introductory essay by art critic Robert Storr contains a humbling prognostication for his fellows.

“Parenthetically, art critics seldom get, or for that matter, merit, full-dress obituaries,” Storr writes, “despite their claims to having spoken for their more lauded artistic heroes or for the zeitgeist.” It leads one to wonder if such a fate might equally befall the archivist, doomed ever to process and preserve the work of others.

“When people learn I’m an archivist, they sometimes ask if my own writing and papers, digital photos, books, and records, and so on are impeccably arranged and preserved,” said Moske. “In fact, in my personal life, I purge relentlessly, save very little, and own no collectibles of any sort.”

More’s the loss for the next generation of curiosity-seeking archivists!

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