The Pre-Raphaelites took a very bold move away from the conventional compositions and subject matter of their times. Henry Wallis' The Death of Chatterton breaths intrigue through its bold coloring scheme and its mysterious yet readable subject. A man lies on a bed, close to the viewer in the foreground of the work, with his eyes shut and his left arm clutched tightly against his chest and his right arm fallen limply over the side of the bed. There is a small box or chest next to the man's head which is open with torn pieces of paper spilling over the sides. The room is very dark besides a bright red cloth in the right hand foreground and a small table in the background that has an empty candle-stick holder and a piece of paper on it. On the back wall of the composition appears a small window with one side open to a bright late-afternoon sky.
Henry Wallis paints with a very bold and contrasting palette. For example, the man's face and neck appear exceedingly pale and gauntly when contrasted up against his vivid and intense red hair. The effect of such deep and conflicting colors dramatizes the theme of death in this work. Another way in which color creates a sensation in this painting is in the bold light source. The strong natural light coming in through the small window is the only light source, giving the work bold shadows in the background which makes the room narrow and flat. In addition, the light from the window hits brashly upon Chatterton's body (especially his head) and the paper on the floor. The light therefore works as a visual cue as to what may be important in the story of this painting.
1. How does the color scheme in Wallis's The Death of Chatterton effect the sensation of the painting?
2. Why does Wallis paint the sides and back of the room in such darkness that objects are almost unreadable, even under close inspection?
3. What visual clues provide symbolism for the story in Wallis' painting?
4. How would Wallis' painting been received or viewed by members or the Royal Academy?
Last modified 13 September 2004