American Art / Art history / Painting

Mourning in the Morning…I mean Evening



“The Pilgrim Mourning His Dead Ass” Benjamin West 1800


Here on Art History News, we tend to talk a lot about death — and by “we” I mean me, the Art Historian. But this is a bit different because of a death of a family member in the family of a very close friend of mine. I’m not sure how her grandfather felt about Benjamin West, but this painting gives the viewer so much emotion and is, in my opinion, one of the best in representing the feeling of receiving the news of death.

Here we see a pilgrim, tired and worn out from a long days journey on foot. Resting his head in his hand, he looks upon the harness of his loyal ass (donkey) that, unfortunately, could not complete the journey. Now, when I say Pilgrim, I don’t mean the pilgrims coming from England to the new world. How do I know this exactly? The giveaway is the scallop shell on the harness. This is a typical symbol of a pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain. If you look very carefully near the horizon line, you can actually see a village with the spire of a church. Could this be the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela? Or is it a pilgrimage church meant to provide prayer and shelter on the hard journey? whichever it is, we know this pilgrim made it to his destination, and that the main theme of the painting is death.

His pose reflects his moment of realization that his loyal ass is no longer there. He’s not looking directly at the viewer, but rather at this harness, now empty and serving as a memory. The loss of an animal can be equally as dramatic as a loss of a person. Is this man traveling alone? Or with other pilgrims? We will never know, but we do know that he is saddened by the loss. His disheveled hair, his deep set eyes, and his back slumped over covered in a black cape are all signs of mourning. The color palette also changes throughout the painting. Around the man you see a darker set of colors, mostly green, brown, and black, and around the harness it’s a bit lighter as it’s highlighting the object we are to pay attention to. in the background is a horizon full of hope, green grasslands, and a town. These represent the stages of mourning, shock, acceptance, and moving on.

As we know from our previous analysis of Benjamin West (you can read that post here), he is not a stranger to painting death. This has similar set up to The death of General Wolfe, using techniques such as the highlight, the progression of colors to show the mood, and small details that help establish the story.

As I sit here helping my friend with the mourning process, having gone through it myself in the past five years, looking at this painting evokes memories both happy and sad. However, it is also a reminder that life must continue on.


– The Art Historian

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