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Today, as we globally join the fight against the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, let’s take a look at three world famous artists who created art during the Spanish flu pandemic. Two of them did not survive to continue their incredible artistic legacy. Read on…..

The Spanish Flu Pandemic 1918 – 1920

The Spanish flu pandemic occurred from January 1918 until December 1920. This deadly influenza infected around 500 million people, which was a quarter of the world’s population at the time. It is estimated that at least 50 million people died of this deadly flu.

Despite its name, the Spanish flu pandemic did not actually start in Spain. During WW1, Spain was a neutral nation and did not enforce strict censorship of its press. The Spanish press openly published early accounts of the illness. However, countries participating in the war, such as Britain, France, Germany and the United States, censored and restricted early reports. Life during WW1 was bad enough. These countries didn’t want the press to further demoralize their citizens with information about the deadly virus .

As a result, people falsely believe that the illness was specific to Spain, and the name Spanish Flu stuck.

Three Famous Artists Who Contracted the Spanish Flu

Even during times of major pandemics, artists continued to create. They captured onto their canvases the misery and hardships that they saw or endured themselves. Below are three famous painters who endured & suffered during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter and graphic artist, is famous for his emotive artworks depicting love and death. In his lifetime and beyond, Munch’s art influenced the expressionist movement, in which where artists used their art to express their inner emotions.

During the pandemic, Munch was very sick with the Spanish flu. However, he was one of the lucky ones to survive it. He painted a self portrait called: Self-Portrait After The Spanish Flu (1919). In this painting, Munch appears thin and frail, wrapping himself in a dressing gown and blanket.

Edvard Munch Portrait depicting a scene from the Spanish Flu Pandemic 1919
Self-Portrait After The Spanish Flu (1919) – Edvard Munch Painting

Munch painted a few paintings depicting The Scream. This “screaming” face is haunting and is universally used to symbolize anxiety Munch created his “Scream” artworks way before the Spanish Flu pandemic.

However Munch gives us a glimpse into an intense inner struggle and an overwhelming feeling of anxiety. This primal inner “scream” certainly strikes a chord with us today as we witness with increasing trepidation the coronavirus pandemic spread havoc throughout the world.

The Scream - Edvard Munch Painting
The Scream – Edvard Munch Painting (1983)

The Austrian Artist Egon Schiele (1890 -1918)

Egon Schiele was an Austrian artist and protégé of the painter Gustav Klimt. Even in his short lifetime, Schiele was successful as a major figurative painter in the early 20th century. His paintings are characterized by their raw sexuality.

In the year that the Spanish flu pandemic began, Schiele turned 28. His artworks were achieving both national and international recognition all over the world. He was now able to afford a more spacious art studio and felt closer to obtaining his dream of opening an art school. In addition, Schiele and his wife, Edith, were about to become parents for the first time.

However, the deadly Spanish flu spread quickly & massively, engulfing Europe and the rest of the world. Cities literally shut down and there were massive shortages of doctors and medical staff. People were dying all over the globe.

The painting entitled The Family is one of Schiele’s last paintings. In this painting, Shiele depicts himself in the nude, vulnerable and gaunt. He also portrays his beloved wife & their unborn child.

Although the characters in this painting look calm, Schiele felt a need to portray his unborn child. Perhaps he foresaw their imminent tragedy?

The unfinished Egon Schiele painting entitled: The Family - painted during the Spanish Flu pandemic
The unfinished Egon Schiele painting entitled: The Family (1918)

Sadly, at around mid-October 1918, Egon Schiele’s wife, contracted the Spanish flu when six months pregnant. Egon wrote the below letter to his mother:

Edith fell ill with the Spanish flu eight days ago yesterday and is now also suffering from pneumonia. She is 6 months pregnant. The illness is exceptionally severe and critical; I am preparing myself for the worst.

Egon Shiele’s wife died of the flu on October 28th, 1918 and three days later, Egon Schiele himself succumbed to the deadly flu.

Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862 – February 6, 1918)

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter. He was also one of the most active members of the Vienna Secession movement. His favorite subject matter was the female body, which he portrayed with candid eroticism.

In addition to his figurative works, Klimt painted beautiful colorful landscapes. Like the French Impressionists & Post-Impressionists, Japanese art greatly influenced his style.

Early in Klimt’s artistic career, he received commissions of large architectural murals. However, as his style developed & evolved, his art form became more sexually explicit. The art world was not yet ready for this and condemned his artworks, calling them crudely pornographic. In view of the criticism, Klimt decided not to accept any more public commissions.

Klimt’s next stage is known as “the golden phase”. It was Klimt’s most successful period. Many of his paintings from this phase are iconic and world famous even today. His beautiful colorful paintings in this period were mostly figurative but also landscape. They were all embellished with gold paint. Klimt’s most iconic painting from this phase is called The Kiss.

The Kiss Painting by Gustav Klimt
The Kiss – Gustav Klimt Painting

In 1918 and at the peak of his artistic career, Gustav Klimt suffered a severe stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He required hospitalized and while there, contracted the deadly Spanish flu. Less then a month later, he died of severe pneumonia. He was only 55 years old. 

Gustav Klimt painting entitled Life & Death painted years before the Spanish Flu pandemic
Life & Death by Gustav Klimt

There are many other artists from all walks of life who survived the Spanish flu pandemic and continued to make their mark in history. These artists include, Walt Disney, Groucho Marx, TS Eliot, Franz Kafka, DH Lawrence, Béla Bartók, Ezra Pound and Amelia Earhart. Other notable survivors include Mahatma Gandhi and Kaiser Willhelm II of Germany.

Good luck to everyone reading this article. Let’s hope that this current coronavirus pandemic will be behind us soon. Until then, brighten your life with art, creativity and family love.

Claude Monet Venice landscapes
Claude Monet Painting of Beautiful Venice in Italy

See below for some wonderful recommendations of art historical fiction books about the impressionists and post impressionists. Let these beautiful stories transport your mind away from our present troubles.