Allegory of the Artist on the Verge of Death

Giovanni David, Italian, 1749 - 1790

Made in Italy, Europe

c. 1780-1790

Pen and brush and black ink and watercolor, on laid paper mounted on paper

Sheet: 12 5/16 x 15 1/2 inches (31.3 x 39.4 cm) Mount: 14 1/8 x 16 13/16 inches (35.8 x 42.7 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman (later SmithKline Beecham) Fund for the Ars Medica Collection, 1978

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An obscure painter and printmaker of the late Genoese Baroque, David studied in Rome with Domenico Corvi before returning to Genoa to make his career. This elaborate scene, filled with references to death and mortality, apparently allegorizes the artist's close brush with the Grim Reaper after a severe illness in the early 1780s.

Additional information:
  • PublicationItalian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    The attribution of this elaborate drawing to the still-obscure artist Giovanni David is supported by two inscriptions on the old primary backing sheet to which it is affixed. The older of the two, which may be autograph, reads (in translation): “Allegory composed by him after the illness suffered in Venice in 1780.” The second, in French on the verso, elaborates on this biographical information: “Giovanni David himself had the plague and did not die of it.” There is no record of a serious outbreak of the plague in Venice in 1780, but the earlier inscription speaks only of an “illness,” and it is known that in 1781 David suffered an acute bout of arthritis and what was then known as dropsy (see i>Ars Medica: Art, Medicine, and the Human Condition, pp. 215-16). The drawing speaks of the struggle with ill health that affected the artist throughout the 1780s, culminating with his death in 1790. He spares no pains to make his point. At the upper left, mourners bear a coffin toward a looming tomb embellished with skull and crossbones, on which is inscribed, fatalistically, finis. In front of the tomb a recumbent river god spills his water into the Styx, while to the left the Three Fates are fast at work preparing to cut the thread of life and a luscious woman holds a snake biting its tail, a symbol of eternity. This latter figure also fondles the expiring artist, whose profession is spelled out by the palette, brushes, and paper that are, however, being torched by Death. Charon the boatman, to the right, struggles ineffectually with his sail, while Father Time makes a futile attempt to drag the artist into the boat. Other morbid relics populate the left foreground below a plinth on which is inscribed “a single breath of air disperses every effort.” The artist’s body is described in correct anatomical detail, a skill David would have learned while studying with Domenico Corvi. The strong contrasts of light and dark bespeak David’s familiarity with the technique of aquatint, which he practiced and helped introduce into Italy. The application of watercolor washes enlivens the otherwise severe if theatrical image, and after some study we, too, are thankful that the artist survived the trauma so eloquently depicted. Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 49.


    W. Apolloni, Rome. Dai manieristi ai neoclassici: disegni italiani. 5 - 22 April 1978. Catalogue. Rome: W. Apolloni, [1978], no. 65, pl. XXIII;
    Cera, Adriano, ed. La pittura neoclassica italiana. Repertori fotografici, vol. 6. Milan: Longanesi, 1987, fig. 318;
    Newcome, Mary. "Drawings by Giovanni David." Master Drawings, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter 1993), pp. 470-71, fig. 4;
    Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ars Medica: Art, Medicine, and the Human Condition. Exhibition catalogue by Diane Karp et al. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1985, no. 105, pl. 105 (as "attributed to Giovanni David").