Alfred Rethel

Alfred Rethel. Ein todtentanz aus den jahre 1848 / erfunden und gezeichnet von Alfred Rethel; mit erklarendem Texte von R. Reinick. Leipzig: Georg Wigand, [1849].


Alfred Rethel (1816–1859) created the six wood engravings for this broadside in response to the Risquons-Tout incident in which Belgian troops quickly defeated a force of six thousand Belgian migrant tradespeople who had been living in France. The insurgents were intent on overthrowing the monarchy to establish a Belgian republic. The cost was perhaps six hundred lives.

Rethel’s depiction of death is as a traveling instigator, sprouting from the earth in the first block to meet with five bird-footed indulgences—Frenzy, Falsehood, Cunning, Vanity, and Bloodthirst. They offer the gaunt figure a cloak, jaunty hat, lance, sword, shield, and the scales they have confiscated from Justice who sits bound and hopeless.

Suitably outfitted in the second block, Death holds a cigar in his teeth, the lance over his shoulder, and the scales looped over a bony finger, as he rides toward a walled town in which a double-spired church is flanked by factory smokestacks.

In the third block Death has arrived and sets himself up as a hawker, misusing Justice’s scales to show balanced weights of a royal crown and a tradesman’s pipe. A poster pasted to the tavern wall behind him proclaims Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood.

He arms the townsmen from the dais in the fourth block, passing his weapons to them, including his sword on which Volks Iustiz, the people’s justice, has been engraved. The flag bearer for the Republic warns of approaching soldiers.

The townsmen, bastioned behind barrels of cobblestones, recognize their fate in the fifth block, as Death standing on a mattress has taken the banner. The soldiers respond to the muzzleloaders with a cannonade.

The final block shows the smoke clearing and soldiers removing the bodies. The sword lays as a castoff upon a shutter torn from a nearby house, its point little use against the cannonball beneath it. A woman and girl weep for their fallen husband and father.  Death has mounted his exhausted steed. The banner unfurls on the mast in his hand. A laurel now rings his otherwise bare skull as he embarks toward the next harvest.

Born in Aachen, Alfred Rethel displayed early artistic aptitude and entered Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, at the young age of thirteen. After graduating, he received commissions for frescos, murals, and cycles of panel paintings memorializing the exploits of great historical figures for prominent buildings of Frankfort am Maine (1836), Aachen (1841), and Rome (1844). While in Rome he began to exhibit signs of a psychological disorder attributed at the time to an injury he had sustained in childhood. Nevertheless, the period became one during which he accomplished his most prodigious works. His symptoms progressed and eventually he was committed to the Departemental-Irrenanstalt zu Düsseldorf where he died.

The verses on the broadside were written by German painter and poet Robert Reinick (1805–1857) who may have become acquainted with Rethel through their association with the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Poor health forced Reinick to abandon painting, and he began to write fairytales and literature for children, as well as poetry for adults. Among his final works was the libretto for Robert Schumann’s opera Genoveva, first performed in Leipzig in 1850.

Second Floor Corridor
Alfred Rethel