Halloween at the National Gallery of Art

Come celebrate Halloween with a look at some of the spookiest paintings in the collection of the National Gallery of Art (NGA). For generations, the macabre has inspired artists across cultures, from the 17th-century Netherlands to the 20th-century United States. The NGA has some of the most boo-tiful examples. Showing skeletons, witches, black cats, and more, these works of art will get you in the Halloween spirit. We will see Dutch vanitas, creatures and monsters, Halloween decorations, choices between good and evil, and the most famous black cat.  

The Dutch Tradition of Vanitas

Jan van Kessel the Elder, Vanitas Still Life, c. 1665/1670
Jan van Kessel the Elder, Vanitas Still Life, c. 1665/1670
Jan van Kessel the Elder, Vanitas Still Life, c. 1665/1670

A “vanitas” still life painting is one that uses objects to remind the viewer of mortality and the futility of earthly possessions and pleasures. In van Kessel’s picture, the skull stands for death, while the hourglass represents how short human life can be. Art historians commonly refer to the skull in this context as a “memento mori,” or reminder of death. Unlike today’s Halloween skeleton decorations, the Dutch in the 17th century would display paintings like this one all year long to teach moral lessons.

Creatures and Monsters

John Hamilton Mortimer, Enrag’d Monster, 1778
John Hamilton Mortimer, Enrag’d Monster, 1778

British painter and printmaker John Hamilton Mortimer made this etching as part of a set dedicated to Joshua Reynolds, one of the best-known artists of the 18th century. It shows a goblin-headed creature attacking a large fish in front of billowing clouds. Though the monster has some vaguely human features, it also looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Maybe it could inspire a new Halloween costume idea. Mortimer was the president of the British Society of Artists and died at a young age only a year after this print was made.

Decorating for Halloween

Lloyd Charles Lemcke, Witch Lantern, 1937
Lloyd Charles Lemcke, Witch Lantern, 1937

Lloyd Charles Lemcke was an American artist active in the first half of the 20th century. The National Gallery of Art possesses many of his watercolor designs for household objects. This painting looks like a ghoulish mask, but it is actually a lantern in the shape of a witch’s face, complete with large staring eyes, warts, and a mouth missing several teeth. It’s unclear whether this lantern was ever manufactured but imagine how frightening it would have looked illuminated from within.

 

 

The Choice Between Good and Evil

Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser, c. 1485/1490.
Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser, c. 1485/1490.

This painting by the Dutch master Hieronymous Bosch shows a miser on his deathbed. Demons cavort around the room, crawling under and over the furniture; one tempts the man with a sack of money. On the right, an angel beseeches the miser to embrace God and eternal salvation. Death, holding an arrow rather than a scythe, enters the door and awaits the miser’s decision. Will he succumb to the temptation of riches and go to Hell or reform his ways and make it into Heaven? Bosch doesn’t give the viewer an answer.

 

Most Famous Black Cat

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Poster for the Company of the Black Cat, 1896
Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Poster for the Company of the Black Cat, 1896

This poster advertises Le Chat Noir (French for “the Black Cat”), a cabaret that opened in the Montmartre quarter of Paris in 1881. This neighborhood was home to many artists at the end of the 19th century and was famously depicted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in his paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter Paul Signac, and the composer Claude Debussy were all known to visit this cabaret. Legend has it that black cats bring bad luck, and a year after this poster was printed, the founder of the cabaret, Rodolphe Salis, died and Le Chat Noir closed.

Conclusion

Though Halloween is an American tradition, artists from around the world have painted dark, creepy, and frightening themes that fit the spirit of the holiday. Before you go out trick-or-treating this year, visit the NGA to enjoy some spook-tacular Halloween art.

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Andrew Lokay

Andrew is an art lover and frequent visitor to DC art museums. He studied international relations and French at Stanford University, where he also took coursework in art history. He’s passionate about helping people see art with new perspectives.
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