The last Monday in May is America's Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor the men and women who have given their lives for their country. It's also a day whose meaning too often is lost in the flurry of department store sales, parties, and the first long weekend of the summer.
This painting might be somber reminder of the day's true purpose. Painted by Joseph Wright of Derby around 1789, The Dead Soldier is a strong political statement about the real cost of war, no matter the century or the combatants.
A new widow buries her face with grief as she holds her dead husband's hand, bringing his fingers to touch those of his now-fatherless child. In the distance, the battle still continues, but the real drama is between these three, and it's heartbreaking. Most military paintings focus on the glory of generals and great victories, and are intended to stir patriotic feelings. This one instead shows the bleak aftermath of war for a common soldier, and the fact that the faces of both the woman and the man are hidden makes them stand in for all the now-forgotten soldiers and widows who suffered a similar fate. Only the baby turns towards the viewer. The woman's ruffled white cap, cast on the ground in despair, is an especially poignant note: a small, beribboned symbol of the girl her husband had loved, and of the life that was now over for them both.
At the time that Wright painted this, England had recently concluded an unpopular and costly civil war with the American colonies. There were few government provisions made for returning soldiers crippled by this war, or for soldier's widows and children. Many sank into deep poverty, falling into begging, prostitution, and crime to survive.
Clearly Wright had these issues in mind. He was inspired by a passage in the 1777 poem "The Country Justice" by John Langhorne, which asks for mercy and understanding for those driven to crime by poverty and indigence. While this is an unusually political painting for Wright (he's more often remembered for fashionable portraits, scientific scenes, and dramatically lit landscapes), it became his most popular work with the public from the time it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. There are multiple versions of the painting, and engravings of it were widely available in Britain and Europe well into the 19thc. Significantly it remained popular throughout the era of the Napoleonic Wars.
There are multiple modern interpretations of the painting. One scholar points to the classical inspiration of the figures, and another says it actually represents the moment that the wife at home receives word of the soldier's death. Others find it overly sentimental and calculated, or concentrate on its unavoidable anti-war message.
But for me (and for many people in the 18thc. who responded so strongly to it), this powerful painting is about love, loss, and sacrifice: all things to consider and remember on Memorial Day.
While it’s unlikely that the main characters in my most recent books (I, Eliza Hamilton and The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr) would have seen this painting, they would been acutely aware of the less-than-glorious consequences of the American Revolution on both sides of the Atlantic. As former officers themselves, both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were concerned about the welfare of the enlisted men who had served with them, and after the war both were involved in government efforts to offer assistance to veterans. And while both men escaped the war outwardly unscathed, there’s little doubt that the battles they survived left their marks: both suffered from occasional debilitating collapses that required bedrest to overcome, and would today likely be diagnosed as symptoms of PTSD. Much as Hamilton and Burr continued to be called by their military titles throughout their civilian lives, the Revolution always remained part of who they were, including the inner scars of the war they’d fought for freedom.
Above: The Dead Soldier, by Joseph Wright of Derby, c. 1789. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.