Madness on canvas: art in horror fiction

When you read enough horror fiction, certain themes recur consistently in the wonderful chaos of ideas.  Among these, I was recently struck by how often the visual arts appear as the centerpiece of horror stories.  This primarily involves paintings, but also to a lesser extent sculpture and other forms of visual art.*

The Vampire, Edvard Munch, 1893-1894 (source).

I thought it was about time I did a post about art in horror, and described some of the stories that have stood out to me as good examples of the interplay of the two seemingly different forms of expression.

Note: potential mildly NSFW artwork below the fold!

So what makes the art world such a ripe field for gathering horror stories?  The most obvious explanation is illustrated by the picture of Munch’s The Vampire shown above: paintings can be very creepy!  Works of expressionism, surrealism, or post-impressionism, for instance, can show the world in an unnatural or nightmarish manner.

Saturn Devouring One of His Children, Francisco de Goya, 1819-1823 (source).

There must be more to it than just the creepiness factor, however.  Music can be creepy, but doesn’t inspire quite as many horror stories (with a number of exceptions).  Another part of the allure is the singular reputation that visual artists have for obsession that borders on, or crosses over into, insanity.

The Camden Town Murder, Walter Sickert, 1908 (source).

Walter Sickert is a good example of this.  He developed a keen interest in the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, and apparently renamed his painting shown above inspired in part by those crimes as well as a murder in Camden Town in 1907.  This intense curiosity in the Ripper has led a few investigators, including novelist Patricia Cornwell, to suggest that Sickert himself was the Ripper!

The Ghost Kohada Koheiji, Katsushika Hokusai, 1830 (source).

Thinking about artists and how they pour their intense passions into their art, another intriguing idea suggested itself to me.  Paintings are, in a sense, the real “ghosts” of their creators.  In fiction, a ghost is that part of a person that remains vital after death, usually incorporating the person’s most basic emotions: fear, desire, anger.  Painting are as close as we can get to such a living remnant.  It is hard to repress a little chill looking at Wheatfield with Crows, one of Vincent van Gogh’s last paintings, without feeling you are seeing a part of van Gogh’s own despair, encroaching insanity, and eventual suicide.

Wheatfield with Crows, Vincent van Gogh, 1890 (source).

Van Gogh is perhaps the perfect example of the sort of themes that run through horror stories about art: madness, obsession, and self-destruction.  It is not just the obsession of the artists that come into play, however; the obsession of art collectors and sellers can be the focus of the story — as can the subjects of the art.

The Night Before the Battle, James Henry Beard, 1865 (source).

With all this in mind, let’s look at a summary of a number of these art and horror stories.  When the stories are in the public domain, a link is provided.

L’Ange du Foyer, Max Ernst, 1937 (source).

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1890).  The classic novel of wickedness and art.  The beautiful young man Dorian Gray dedicates his life to pure sin and hedonism, and makes a wish that a portrait of him would grow old in his place.  His wish comes true, and the ever-youthful Dorian leaves a trail of misery in his wake, with his painting becoming ever more vile with every dark act.

The Oval Portrait, Edgar Allen Poe (1850).  A short tale by the master of the macabre.  A man sheltering against a storm at an abandoned chateau finds himself captivated by the portrait of a young woman hanging on the wall.  Finding its description in a catalog nearby, he learns the dark history behind the painting.

Pickman’s Model, H.P. Lovecraft (1926).  Probably the classic short story of artistic horror.  Thurber, a patron of the arts and the story’s narrator, shares his experiences visiting the very private studio of weird painter Richard Upton Pickman.  Pickman’s specialty involves speculative works about the ancient and forgotten underground of Boston, and the creatures that exist there; as Thurber’s visit continues, he comes to realize that the Pickman’s oeuvre is a reflection of the man’s own madness.

This story has wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of ancient and decaying Boston, and its sinister underground.

Skin, Roald Dahl (1952).  A short and nasty little tale, from an author famous for being nasty.  An aging former tattoo parlor owner named Drioli reveals that he wears on his back a tattoo painted by a very famous and long gone artist.  How much is Drioli willing to accept for the skin off of his back?

The Mezzotint, M.R. James (1904).  Mr. Williams, a collector of art for the Cambridge museum, is pointed towards a piece of artwork, a mezzotint, of a manor house.  When he takes possession of the image, however, he and his colleagues find that they are now witness, through it, to a horrifying event in the manor’s history.  M.R. James is one of the great writers of ghost stories, and the mezzotint is an excellent example of his work.

Huguenin’s Wife, M.P. Shiel (1895).  The narrator is desperately summoned by his friend Huguenin to his home on a secluded Greek isle.  Huguenin’s wife has died, but she may not have been human to begin with.  Key to the mystery are two self-portraits painted by the wife herself — one monstrous.

Benlian, Oliver Onions (1911). Onions is another of the master authors of ghost stories, usually telling tales that are subtly unsettling.  In Benlian, we have a tale of two obsessions — the obsession of the narrator with Benlian, an eccentric sculptor, and the obsession of Benlian himself, who envisions a work of art in which he literally becomes his masterpiece.

Death and the Maiden, Hans Baldung Grien, 1518-1520 (source).

The stories that are mentioned below are not freely available on the internet, but I provide links to the collections they have most recently appeared in.

Isle of the Dead, Arnold Boecklin, 1883 (source).

Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity, David Morrell (1988).  In a tale directly inspired by the life and works of van Gogh, thriller author David Morrell tells another tale of obsession.  Motivated by the death of his friend in the pursuit of the “secret” of Dutch artist van Dorn’s artwork, a graduate student travels to southern France in search of answers.  Van Dorn’s secret has driven many to madness and death before, and the student risks his own soul in its discovery.

The Imago Sequence, Laird Barron (2005).  An aging investigator is hired to search for the missing two photographs of a trio called The Imago Sequence.  Parallax Alpha, the known photograph, is an indistinct darkness that may be artwork or may show something primitive and horrific in the depths.  As the investigator tracks down the other members of the collection, he finds those connected with the trio are in danger and his own life and sanity is threatened with corruption and regression.

The Phantom Model, Hume Nisbet (1894).  When painter Algar Gray seeks a new model for his masterwork, a colleague suggests he search amongst the lower class of society.  He finds his ideal in a woman whose lifestyle is leading her on a downward spiral to death.  Death itself, however, cannot interrupt the completion of the painting, or Algar’s obsession.

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781 (source).

So, are there other stories involving horror and the visual arts that I’ve missed?  I’m sure there are plenty; let me know in the comments!


* I’ve drawn inspiration in this post, just this once, from Tom Levenson’s blog style, in which he uses artwork to highlight his content.

Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley, 1778 (source).

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562 (source).
This entry was posted in Horror. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Madness on canvas: art in horror fiction

  1. I love this post! That said, I think you forgot one, though including it may well be a spoiler for the novella… As such, I’ve hidden the link to Wikipedia behind a URL shortner:

  2. Tom Levenson says:

    Wonderful stuff here.
    Many thanks for the shout out.

  3. Will E. says:

    I haven’t read that David Morrell story in years, thanks for the reminder!

  4. Jesse M. says:

    Have you read any Thomas Ligotti? I got interested in him when I saw him mentioned as one of the most “Lovecraftian” of recent horror writers, his stories aren’t really as science-fictional as a lot of Lovecraft’s but they do remind me of more surreal and nightmarish Lovecraft pieces like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “Nyarlathotep”. Anyway, Ligotti has done a number of stories about visual works that hold weird secrets, like “The Strange Design of Master Rignolo” (an artist who tries to ‘disappear’ into his landscape paintings), “The Library of Byzantium” (in which a child steals a page from a strange holy book lent to him by the family priest, full of grotesque woodcut illustrations), “The Shadow, the Darkness” (an artist creates a sculpture illustrating a shadowy vitalistic force which he claims animates all life, and later creates a different sort of artistic illustration of this force). A lot of his other stories revolve around other types of artworks (books, film, architecture), or groups of avant-garde artists, as well. Unfortunately a lot of his books are out-of-print, but one exception is the collection Teatro Grottesco which has a lot of excellent stories, and for anyone who tries him out and likes him, might be worth picking up a used copy of the huge collection The Nightmare Factory.

  5. Let me start by saying that I absolutely love this post. I love doing horror art as well as reading and watching horror and I think I understand the connection between the art and the written stories. There are things that can be drawn/painted that you can never describe in words but at the same time written word can stir up your imagination and your own mind can create a much more horrible picture than even an author could have thought of. Art can also stir up your imagination though, I often look at art done by others and make up a story about it in my mind, thinking what it could have meant to the artist. Some elements in a painting might speak to different people in different ways, and might appear as something only you can understand. It might speak to the depth of the mind where the true fear sleeps and yet for other people it wouldn’t mean the same

    • Thanks for the compliment, and the thoughtful comment! There are clearly a number of different ways that the visual and written arts can play off one another.

      I enjoyed the artwork on your site!

  6. To me, Pickman’s model has been the most favorite creepy artist story for long time. Lovecraft’s saying that Pickman’s art was a step ahead of Goya’s, is a lot. Enjoyed viewing this compilation. If it interest you at all, feel free to read my catch on Pickman’s model here
    Comments are welcome.

  7. Pingback: Episode 3 – The Mezzotint - A Podcast to the Curious

  8. The Crawling Chaos says:

    Reblogged this on The Outsider and commented:
    Art in horror and horror in art? Count me in!

    Know that, mein freud, there will be another post soon, and also a tiny little perk to Nyarlathotep-level membership…which is free, so just take a look at the page!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.