The Dead Soldier

7:00 AM


Joseph Wright of Derby, The Dead Soldier, 1790 

The soldier is the focal point, almost in the center of the painting, clad in scarlet. My eyes travel directly to his crumpled figure in brilliant red. But then, like a nightmare, I notice his hand. His hand is green. Cue the blood-curdling scream.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the hand itself is the disheveled woman clasping it, crying into it. Obviously distressed at her husband’s death, she has turned her face away from us. She is having one final private moment with her love. Her baby is the only one whose face we see. It lays in its mothers’ arms, expressionless, placid. It does not mourn its father's death. Instead, it invites us into the makeshift tent. Its hand clasps its father’s, linking the innocence of young life and the corruption of war and death. Those three cannot escape the war. It rages on behind them, fills the sky with smoke. Bursts of red direct our eyes diagonally across the painting deeper into the battle, from the wife’s dress in the bottom left corner, to the scarlet corpse, to the cannon wheel hiding in the shadows, to the flash of pink in the center-right. Red punctures the painting, makes it bleed.

I don’t want to look at this painting anymore. It makes me want to scream, to pull the baby away from its inescapable misery, to let go of the green hand. But I can’t. I have to let this scene live on in eternal turmoil and be thankful that I don’t share its fate.

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