Death in the Getty’s Online Open Content Project

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Paul Gauguin (French, 1848 – 1903) 
Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)
, 1892, Oil on coarse fabric
On Monday, the Getty, the world famous California-based institution dedicated to the understanding and collecting of art, announced its Open Content Program, a developing effort to make its digital resources open to the public. The program will occur in stages, the first being the release two days ago of 4,600 images of artwork from the Getty Museum collection.
“The Getty was founded on the conviction that understanding art makes the world a better place, and sharing our digital resources is the natural extension of that belief,” wrote James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, on the
institution’s website. He also noted that the open source initiative was an “educational imperative” as well, designed to help interested parties have access to art that had previously been cloistered away.
With over four thousand images, it’s easy to see what you want to see in the already uploaded files of this open source collection. When I was browsing yesterday, what I saw, apparently, is death. And lots of it, too!

John Reekie, photographer (American, active 1860s)

Print by Alexander Gardner, maker (American, born Scotland, 1821 – 1882)

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia
, negative April 1865; print 1866, Albumen silver print
Getty also provides the background to each, which are inevitably macabre: 
“This gruesome scene depicts the unpleasant job of burying the remains of fallen Union soldiers from the June 1864 battles of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor. … Already reduced to nothing more than a pile of bones, these bodies lay unburied for ten months until the war’s end, while the blistering heat and humidity of the Virginia summer hastened their decomposition.” -

Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon), photographer (French, 1820 – 1910)

Victor Hugo on His Deathbed
, 1885, Woodburytype

Thomas Richard Williams, daguerreotypist (English, 1825 – 1871)

Vanitas / Still Life with Skull, Open Book with Glasses, and Hourglass / The Sands of Time
, 1850 – 1852, Stereograph, daguerreotype
“This daguerreotypestereograph image by Thomas Richard Williams is a still life
memento mori composition. An assemblage of a human skull, an hourglass with the sand running out, an extended compass, and a book abandoned mid-read with eyeglasses placed upside down on the page, the image evokes the temporary nature of mortal life and the inevitability of death. The objects also refer to intellectual pursuits and to the inevitable triumph of the soul over the mind.”

Johann Heinrich Fuseli (Swiss, 1741 – 1825)

An Old Man Murdered by Three Younger Men
, early 1770s, Pen and black ink and gray wash
“Dramatically lit behind dark, parted curtains, a group of figures encircle an old man and brutally stab him. Starkly opposing areas of dark and light intensify the drama: the paper’s brilliant whiteness contrasts with the black curtains and the murderers’ menacing shadows. This drawing typifies the horrific scenes in which Fuseli specialized.” -

Felice Beato, photographer (English, born Italy, 1832 – 1909)

Henry Hering, printer (British, 1814 – 1893)

Interior of “Secundra Bagh” after the Massacre
, 1858 – 1862, Albumen silver print
“This scene of the Secundra Bagh palace courtyard at Lucknow, India shows the aftermath of the Sepoy Rebellion by the native soldiers
(sepoys) of the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. The story goes that the Bengalese soldiers feared that their foreign employer was trying to force
Christianity upon them by violating their cultural taboo. They had purportedly been issued rifle cartridges lubricated with pork and beef lard, which was in violation of Hindu and Moslem laws. In defense of their beliefs, the soldiers attacked an English garrison and colony at Cawnpore. The British retaliated in November 1857, and the scattered bones of some of the 2,000 rebels killed were intentionally left unburied in the courtyard.” -

Gustave Moreau (French, 1826 – 1898)

Diomedes Devoured by Horses
, 1866, Watercolor over graphite
“The brown mare fastens her teeth on his arm, while another sinks her jaw into his leg. Bodies of the horses’ previous victims lie piled to the right, above a pool of blood-stained water. This scene shows the dramatic climax from the eighth labor of Hercules, who was ordered to capture the four flesh-eating horses belonging to King Diomedes. Hercules killed the king in battle and fed his body to the horses, which tamed them.” -

Statuette of a Dead Swordsman
, 480 – 460 B.C., Bronze with inlaid copper
“Lying on his back with his lifeless limbs spread wide, this small bronze figure of a youth shows the release of death. … The dead youth may have been one of the children of Niobe, a mortal woman who was punished by the gods
Apollo and Artemis, the children of the goddess
Leto. Niobe offended the goddess by bragging that she had fourteen children, whereas Leto had only two. Leto punished Niobe by sending her children to kill all of
Niobe’s sons and daughters. Niobe was turned into a weeping stone.” -

Master of the Chronique scandaleuse, illuminator (French, active about 1493 – 1510)

Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death
, about 1500, Tempera colors, ink and gold on parchment

Taddeo Crivelli, illuminator (Italian, died about 1479, active about 1451 – 1479)

Initial D: A Skull in a Rocky Field
, about 1469, Tempera colors, gold paint, gold leaf, and ink on parchment

Miniature Skeleton, 1st century, BronzeThat there are this many grim portraits of death makes sense, of course: art is a major way we relate to and express our mortality. But if you’re not feeling all that macabre today, the Open Content Program also has photographs of New York City from the 1800s, ornate medieval manuscripts, the story of Jesus illustrated a million different ways, notable Grecian terracotta pieces, and high-resolution images of many other awesome pieces of art.
All digital images courtesy of the Getty‘s Open Content Program