Object of the Month: The Death of Cain, c. 1872-75

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Posted 24th August 2017

by Dr Cicely Robinson

The Death of Cain, painted by Watts in 1872-75, depicts an imagined conclusion to the Biblical narrative of Cain and Abel. Currently on loan to G F Watts: England's Michelangelo, Watts gave this monumental work to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1886.

In the Book of Genesis Cain, the elder son of Adam and Eve, grew crops while his younger brother Abel tended sheep. When they both offered their respective produce as a sacrifice to God Abel's offering was better received, causing Cain to fly into a fit of jealous rage and kill his brother. As a punishment for this reckless and selfish crime God cursed Cain, exiling him to a life of wandering.

With this large-scale work Watts, who often turned to the Old Testament in search of ideas, imagines an additional conclusion to this narrative. After wandering in the wilderness, the frail and exhausted Cain returns to Abel's altar to offer himself up as a sacrifice. Under a tumultuous and stormy sky, a fiery angel sweeps down. The dark clouds are visibly swept away as Cain's curse is lifted and he is finally allowed to die forgiven.

A series of sketches within the Watts Gallery Trust collection demonstrate the many revisions that Watts undertook in order to perfect this dramatic composition. He experimented with both the stance and build of Cain, initially depicting a more upright and muscular figure.

The dramatic and twisted position of the angel also received significant attention. In order to refine this stance, Watts initially sketched the figure nude, adding the intricate flowing drapery once the underlying anatomical structure was perfected. Following these preparatory sketches, in the finished composition the exact moment of absolution is captured with balanced and dramatic intensity.

Image: G F Watts (1817-1904), The Death of Cain, c. 1872-75. Oil on canvas. Royal Academy of Arts.