Suicide Through the Eyes of the Artist

IXTAB, Mayan goddess of Suicide

Suicide continues to be a difficult act to prevent because of the taboos surrounding death and the stigmas attached to self injury behavior. The use of visual material by established artists will facilitate efforts to communicate necessary information by providing viewers with a socially acceptable context in which to learn about good prevention practices. Experience has shown that use of visual art in suicide prevention provides a publicly acceptable and generally favorable atmosphere in which the topic of suicide can be discussed with a wide variety of groups. More information is available in the book "Art & The Wish to Die".


The images accompanying this section were originally intended for use by the mental health professions who are interested in programs for prevention of suicide. However, these are also suitable for any one who wishes to know more about suicide. This portion will provide information about the slides, the artists who painted them, and explanatory notes, such that no specific mental health or art history background is required. A fuller account is available in Art & the Wish to Die

Works of visual art dealing with themes of suicide can be grouped by chronological epochs.


Suicide : Works before 1400 CE

Before the 1400s the Church was the major patron of all art. Suicidal themes were restricted to acts of biblical figures. The most popular was Judas, Samson, Saul, and his Swordbearer. Less popular were Abimelech, Achitophel, and Zimri.

The act of suicide was usually shown matter of factly, the rationality was described in the Bible, and the emotion was left to the reader or viewer.


Suicide : Works Between 1350 and 1700CE

Cleopatra - Guido Reni

About the Fifteenth Century, artists began to paint secular subjects, classical myths, still life, landscapes and portraits in what became known subsequently as the Renaissance. These and later artists depicted the act of Suicide with the suggestion that it...

Justification: was an expression of virtue, courage or faith.

Rationality: was a reasonable motive in an otherwise insolubly social dilemma.

Emotion: was tragic, but appropriate to the situation; thus sympathy and admiration are aroused in the viewer.


1700 - 1800 CE

Ugly female stabbing self
Lucretia - Hopher

As art evolved and artists became less dependent on the church or nobility for patronage, they began to express more critical attitudes about contemporary folkways. These artists portrayed the act of suicide with the suggestion that it ...

Justification: was an expression of evil associated with a sinful life.

Rationality: was still a reasonable motive, but for hedonistic or immoral goals.

Emotion: was still appropriate to the situation but extreme; thus in the viewer contempt and rejection are aroused.


1800 - 1900 CE

Woman drowning, head only
Ophelia - Redon

Overlapping the previous groups are the Nineteenth Century painters who reflected the social changes of the industrial revolution, the breakthrough in science, and especially the beginning of modern notions about unconscious and irrational motives to explain abnormal behavior. These artists portrayed the act of suicide with the suggestion that it ...

Justification: was not the issue for the artist; who painted as a neutral observer.

Rationality: was unreasonable by common sense standards.

Emotion: was sad, verging into a romanticized depression.


1870 - 1930 CE

Ugly woman stabbing self
Dead Day - Barlach, E.

The portrayal of suicide in visual art begins to approximate the clinical symptoms of depression: slowing of speech and movement; Loss of appetite, reduction of sexual drive, and former interests; sleeplessness, feelings of guilt and worthlessness; morbid bodily preoccupations. The artists portrayed suicide with the suggestion that it...

Justification: was a "sick" response to, and protest against, inhumane social conditions.

Rationality: was unreasonable only because the act was exaggerated and ineffectual.

Emotion: was a clinical depression, while in the viewer, poignancy is aroused by the conditions.


1930 - 1960 CE

Woman in bed with phone in hand
Marilyn- Joffrin

As people become less important, more victims of the environment, and more alienated from life-renewing experiences, death becomes more tempting as a means of denying the intolerable. The universal simultaneous wish to die and wish to live are reflected in the works of the artists during this period. They portrayed the act of suicide with the suggestion that it...

Justification: was a pathetic effort to change an intolerable awareness of deprivation.

Rationality: was unreasonable since the deprivation was more in the mind of the victim than actual.

Emotion: was ambivalent; alternating between hopeful and hopeless; with the victim as needer of help, and the viewer as a giver of help.


Works after 1960CE

Anon - Margritte

The contemporary professional artists have gone beyond the non-representational to the new image, however, arbitrary or dehumanized. We are still too close to the works of recent years to form any dependable judgments. They tend to emphasize...

Jusitifcation: as an automated response to trauma or perceived deprivation in an increasingly dehumanized environment, mediated by computers

Rationality: Although many artists invite participation, the viewer now tends to respond in terms of detached, humor/pathos, or frustrated feelings or just plain confusion.

Emotion: as ambivalent emotions swing between hopeful and hopeless, with the victim as still a needer of help. It is meaningful as an implied "cry for help" by victims who are unable to act effectively in saving themselves.

The preceding evolution through time is recapitulated by the three themes of :

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