Famous Funeral Paintings

Scene from George Grosz's A Funeral: Tribute to Oskar Panizza

Image by Fred Romero on Flickr

Perhaps because of the darkness and drama of death, and the grandeur of ceremonies, funerals have proved a popular subject throughout the history of art. This guide highlights some of the most famous and important funeral paintings.

Funeral Procession of Elizabeth I

Extract from illustration of the Funeral Procession of Elizabeth I, displaying the queen's coffinon a carriage being pulled by horses and escorted by knights

Image by PKM on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

This early 17th century illustration is the first depiction of the funeral of an English ruler. The funeral procession is lead by a riderless horse covered with velvet drapes and followed by a horse-drawn carriage bearing the queen’s purple coffin, which is carved with a lifelike effigy of her. The canopy above the coffin is carried by six knights. The coffin is followed by the queen’s most senior servants, including her ladies in waiting and the Privy Council. Notable individuals in the procession include Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary and Sir Francis Drake, Captain of the Guard.

Artist: William Camden (?)

Date: c.1603

Medium: Manuscript Illustration

Collection: British Library, London, UK

The Funeral of Patroclus

Image of Funeral of Patroclus, depicting grandiose Neo-classical imagining of Patroclus's funeral

Image by Ululare on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The art of the 18th century was dominated by the contrasting styles of Rococo and Neoclassicism. The latter was the most popular with the artistic establishment and reflected an obsession with Ancient Greece and Rome as the peak of human civilisation. Even contemporary figures were depicted in classical clothes. The Funeral of Patroclus depicts a scene from the Illiad where Achilles mourns the death of his friend Patroclus at the hands of Hector during the Trojan War. The painting disappeared shortly after Jacques-Louis David completed it and was only rediscovered in 1972.

Artist: Jacques-Louis David

Date: 1778

Medium: Oil on canvas

Collection: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Republic of Ireland

A Burial at Ornans

Image of A Burial at Ornans, dipicting ordinary French villagers in 19th century dress at a burial

Image by Bidragsyter~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The composition of A Burial at Ornans seems quite traditional now, but it caused outrage when it was exhibited in 1850. Many critics were scandalised that Gustav Courbet had depicted ordinary people at a mundane occasion on the same scale as the grandiose events which were the traditional focus of fine art. Even the title ‘A burial…,’ rather than ‘The burial’ was provocative because it underlined Courbet’s emphasis on realism.

The burial that inspired Courbet was the funeral of his great-uncle in his home-town, and the ordinary people depicted in the painting were mourners who had actually attended it. A Burial at Ornans was eventually accepted as one of the great paintings of 19th century France and an important milestone in the emerging school of Realism.

Artist: Gustave Courbet

Date: c.1849/50

Medium: Oil on canvas

Collection: Musee D’Orsee, Paris, France

The Funeral (unfinished)

Copy of Manet's unfinished painting, 'The Funeral,' depicting an impressionist rendering of a funeral procession in the countryside

Image by Pharos on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Eduoard Manet, an early impressionist and pioneer of Modern Art, was one of the few mourners to attend the funeral of the celebrated French writer Charles Baudelaire, because of a potential storm. Manet kept it in his possession until his own death, and it is not known why he stopped working on it. Perhaps grief at losing his friend made finishing the painting too emotionally painful.

Artist: Eduoard Manet

Date: c.1867

Medium: Oil on canvas

Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA

A Highland Funeral

Copy of Sir James' Guthrie's Highland Funeral painting depicting an all-male group of Victorian mourners attending a funeral blessing outside a house in the winter

Image by Waterborough on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

A successful portrait painter, whose commissions included several Prime Ministers, Sir James Guthrie, one of the group of artists called ‘The Glasgow Boys’, found most of his inspiration in rural Scotland. A Funeral Service in the Highlands is a realistic portrayal of a 19th century Scottish funeral, including the absence of woman, but the composition recalls the influential, and much more dramatic, A Burial at Ornans.

Artist: Sir James Guthrie

Date: c.1882

Medium: Oil on canvas

Collection: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, UK

The Funeral of a Viking

Image of Frank Dicksee's funeral of a viking painting, depicting Vikings in neo-classical outfits, launching a burning boat with a dead friend on-board into the sea during a storm

Image by Alonso de Mendoza on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

This entirely fictionalised depiction of a Viking funeral reflects the culture of Romantic Nationalism which gripped the European imagination in the 19th century. The Victorians retained the 18th century interest in Classicism, but were also fascinated by the ‘Old North,’ including Vikings, Scandinavian raiders who invaded parts of Britain, Ireland and France in the Middle Ages.

Other elements of the painting that are more in tune with 19th century ideals of the past than reality, are the uniforms of the ‘Viking,’ which seem more like the armour of Roman soldiers.

A funeral as the subject was likely chosen because of the artistic interest in death and the inherent drama of a Viking ‘burial.’

Artist: Frank Bernard Dicksee

Date: c.1893

Medium: Oil on canvas

Collection: Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, UK

The Funeral of Shelley

Image of Louis Edouard Fournier's funeral pyre on the beach, attended by Lord Byron and other friends, with other mourners. Mary Shelley is kneeling with hands clasped in the background

Image by DcoetzeeBot on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

When the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, husband of Mary Shelley, drowned after his ship sank off the coast of Italy in 1822, his friends Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Edward J. Trelawney, burned his body on the beach after it washed ashore. Italian law required that all bodies recovered from the sea were burned, but the dramatic use of a funeral pyre suggests that Shelley’s friends were also inspired by the neoclassical ideal to copy the funeral traditions of Ancient Rome.

Trelawney apparently retrieved the young poet’s heart and part of his jawbone from the fire because it was too pure to burn. Shelley was buried in the same cemetery in Rome as John Keats, another Romantic poet and friend who had predeceased him. Mary Shelley kept her husband’s heart in her writing desk.

This painting by the French artist, Louis Edouard Fournier, is, fittingly, a Romanticised version of Shelley’s funeral that fictitiously features Mary Shelley and ignores reports that the poet’s body was quite badly decomposed by the time it appeared on the beach.

Artist: Louis Edouard Fournier

Date: c.1889

Medium: Oil on canvas

Collection: The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK

A Funeral: Tribute to Oskar Panizza

Copy of George Grosz's painting,A Funeral: Tribute to Oskar Panizza

Image by Fred Romero on Flickr

After the First World War German art was dominated by horror at the carnage of conflict. In A Funeral: Tribute to Oskar Panizza George Grosz uses the techniques of both Cubism and Futurism to emphasise his disgust at German society. Grosz’s friend, Oskar Panizza, a psychiatrist who was also a fierce critic of the German state, was still alive at the time of the painting, but was living in a ‘mental asylum.’ The subject of a funeral is a metaphor for the chaos of the German political system after the war.

Artist:George Grosz

Date: 1917/1918

Medium: Oil on canvas

Collection: Stattsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany