3 The Death of Seneca

Title: The Death of Seneca

Artist/Source: Unknown Flemish (after Peter Paul Rubens and Cornellis Gallee the Elder)

Date: possibly 17th century

Medium/Technique: red chalk on paper

UCL Art Museum #4724 (Grote Bequest, 1872)

This drawing depicts the death of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 1 BC – AD 65), an ancient Roman stoic philosopher and statesman, who cut his wrists and then entered a bathtub to quicken his death after the Emperor Nero ordered him to commit suicide. Stoicism was concerned with the acceptance of one’s own mortality and, indeed, the philosopher shown here appears unaffected by his impending death. Unlike most depictions, this drawing focuses on the mortality and transience of the flesh, which is shown withering off the old man’s bones. Usually artists limited the portrayal of old age to the face, keeping the aged body away from display.

The Death of Seneca was a popular theme in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the most famous example produced around 1615 by the Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), upon which the drawing shown here is based. Rubens had looked at ancient busts of Seneca in an attempt to create an accurate likeness, but turned the suicide into an image of Christian martyrdom according to popular interpretations of his own time. In his engraving of Rubens’s original composition, the printmaker Cornellis Gallee the Elder (1576 – 1650) added a niche to the background, as a further symbol of death. The niche appears again in this drawing, which suggests that our artist copied the version of Seneca from the print rather than Rubens’ painting. Galle himself had also been influenced by an earlier engraving of the Death of Seneca by Alexander Voet II.

The artist of this drawing captures the fleeting moments between life and death, in a manner similar to that of the series by Albinus, where flayed bodies also seem to occupy such an intermediate position (see in this pack). His wrists already slit, Seneca is doomed to die, shown here just on the brink of sealing his fate in the bath. The subject becomes a ‘momento mori’, a reminder of the shortness of life, particularly as Seneca considered acceptance of one’s own mortality as an essential part of the Stoic lifestyle. Seneca wrote, “It is not that we have a short time to live but that we waste a lot of it” in his De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life).

Related works:

Cornellis Gallee the Elder, The Death of Seneca, engraving (#1130).

Luca Vosterman, Portrait of Seneca, engraving, 1638 (#2507).

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