One hundred and two

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The Saltonstall Family

c1640 by David Des Granges
Tate Gallery

In an England obsessed with portraiture, particularly among the upper classes, a portrait on the deathbed was not unusual, especially if the person in question was someone worth remembering. What is interesting about this painting is it not only captures the death, but also what is left behind. The painting shows Sir Richard Saltonstall looking upon his dead wife, holding the hands of their children, while his new wife and baby sit across the room. This strange depiction of family relations is oddly touching, a tender letting go of one string of life, while embracing and looking to the new. Both wives are dressed in chilling white, pure and almost idol like, though of course it is only the first whose skin mirrors this ghostly colouring, her pale face melting into the linen that shrouds her; she is a frozen presence, the second wife’s pallor glows in comparison. These pale figures sharply contrast to the deep, rich and luxurious crimson that flows, blood like, throughout the painting, warm in the clothes of the children and velvet cloaking the death bed. It is this red and white that dominates the composition, the pulse of life and the cold of death, the forces behind this intriguing painting.

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