A young soldier lies dead in a barren landscape, the sky growing dark around him. A deathly pallor tinges his face and his left hand rests on the hilt of his sword, as if to protect it. His bony, oversized right hand, the colour of decaying flesh, lies prominently on his chest. The man’s armour glints in the fading light, and a silk bow hangs limply from his shoe.
A swirl of blue smoke overhead does little to relieve the sense of melancholy. A lamp hangs from a leafless branch; a breeze has set it swinging and its flame has gone out. A skull and bones lie to the left, while close to the corpse bubbles disturb the surface of a small water pool. These bubbles will soon burst, leaving no trace, and, together with the extinguished flame, they are to be considered vanitas symbols, alluding to the brevity of human life and the suddenness of death.
More than a century of research and technical investigation has failed to shed any conclusive light on who painted this powerful, enigmatic work, though it was once attributed to the great Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. It is now generally considered to be Italian rather than Spanish.
In the 1840s the painting was on the art market in Paris, where it was probably seen by Édouard Manet who drew inspiration from the soldier’s sharply foreshortened figure for his own The Dead Toreador (National Gallery of Art, Washington). That is a fragment of a larger work depicting a bullfight, which Manet himself cut down after its negative reception at the Paris Salon in 1864.
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