'Status Viatoris': A New Construction of Death in Paintings by Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix and Prints of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, 1815 - 1830.

Open Access
McCann, Carmen Lorraine
Graduate Program:
Art History
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
August 12, 2010
Committee Members:
  • Nancy Elizabeth Locke, Dissertation Advisor
  • Nancy Elizabeth Locke, Committee Chair
  • Sarah K Rich, Committee Member
  • Charlotte Marie Houghton, Committee Member
  • Kathryn Marie Grossman, Committee Member
  • Pere Lachaise
  • Theodore Gericault
  • Eugene Delacroix
  • death
  • status viatoris
  • French Romanticism
  • Paris
  • Medical history
During the Bourbon Restoration (1815–1830), Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix created a number of paintings that depict corpses. On second look, however, many of these bodies are still alive, or exist in an ambiguous state between life and death. Similarly prints of Père Lachaise in travel guidebooks and vues pittoresques juxtapose living and dead figures in such a way as to suggest that the cemetery is a borderland space where life meets death. This project examines the ways in which these representations of death illustrate what is referred to as a status viatoris—the ambiguous stage separating life from death—that is reflective of contemporary medical studies on the dying body as well as influenced by the presence of death in society, and feelings of uncertainty associated with the defeat of Napoleon, the return of the Bourbon monarchy, and the sense of dismay and disillusionment related to the disease known as the mal du siècle. The philosophical concept of status viatoris is borrowed from its original theo-philosophical meaning which defined the progression of life on its way to death. This study relocates its meaning to a medico-scientific understanding associated with late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century studies on death. These investigations—inspired by numerous cases of people being buried alive, health concerns from the effects of overpopulated graveyards and decomposing corpses, and studies of decapitated heads—encouraged doctors and scientists to pursue a greater understanding of the human body through the practice of dissections and close observation of corpses. They determined that a stage exists after life but before real death, and suggested that a body dies progressively, in stages. It is this ambiguous period, or a status viatoris, that appears in paintings by Géricault and Delacroix and in prints of Père Lachaise. A fresh examination of these images and this discourse on death in light of the political, social, and intellectual culture of France as well as the medico-scientific literature, will provide a new understanding of art focused on the morbidly fascinating subject of death during the Romantic period.