The poet is dead, the remnants of his work torn to shreds around him. Wallis's depiction of Chatterton's suicide appears to be realistic. For example, the folds in the bedding as the body lies on the bed and the haphazard placement of the boy's coat on the floor add to the atmosphere of frenzy before death. Wallis also chose the true setting of the scene, in an attic room, which is appropriately simple in its furnishings. Yet many elements of the painting achieve symbolic effects. The candle with the smoke still rising and the lone petal falling from the rose on the window sill both echo the transition from life to death. The coloring of the boy, with his sallow complexion in death, also markedly contrasts with his brightly colored clothes and lustrous red hair. These color choices emphasize the loss of vibrancy — literary brightness as well as the vitality of life and youth. Indeed, the quotation that accompanies the painting alludes to the premature death of the poet, declaring that "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight." These elements combine to give an air of tragedy to the painting.

Discussion Questions

1. Does Wallis depict dawn or dusk, and what are the technical clues to the answer?

2. How could the distinction between dawn and dusk be important to the message of the painting?

3. Does Chatterton's beardless face lead us to feminize his image? Does this allow a comparison with painting's of female tragedy, such as Millais's depiction of the drowned Ophelia?

4. How does Wallis achieve a graceful effect, even though the positioning of the body is awkward with the boy's head hanging off the edge of the bed?

5. The accompanying quotation links Chatterton's death with the burning of "Apollo's laurel bough." What is the significance of Apollo's laurel in the context of this painting?

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Last modified 10 September 2006