The Man with the Scythe by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1859-1929). Exhibited 1896. Oil paint on canvas. Support: 1676 x 1664 mm / frame: 1990 x 1975 x 165 mm. Tate Gallery. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest in 1896. Reference N01605 1903. Oil on canvas, 131 x 147 cm. Kindly released by the Tate Gallery on the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) license. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

The Man with the Scythe is a desperately sad painting in which a child is slumped, limp and still, on a chair outside a thatched cottage, and a woman, most probably her mother, bends over her with obvious anxiety. She holds something in her apron, as if she has just now been busy doing something housewifely, gathering some fruit or vegetables from a store perhaps. Beyond the gate at the right is the dim figure to which the painting's title refers, ostensibly a countryman with a great scythe over his shoulder, its black blade curving inwards. He might be a farmworker like the one in La Thangue's Mowing Bracken. But his pale cape glimmers in the dark: this passer-by is surely none other than the Angel of Death. The symbolism may be heavy-handed, but it is a dramatic attempt to marry Victorian domestic realism with traditional iconography (thanks to George Landow for suggesting this point), and the painting is very affecting. The contrast between the white pillow and the child's white dress, and the shadows all around, suggests the purity of the soul which, it seems, has now taken flight for heaven. — Jacqueline Banerjee

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Last modified 1 December 2018