Art Behind The Meme: A Woman Clinging on to Life

The painting’s artist and sitter remain a mystery, but they have fueled a popular 2020 meme.

Young Woman on her Deathbed (ca. 1621), painting by an unknown artist, oil on canvas. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images.

What’s in a meme? Sometimes, art. Art Behind the Meme brings you the low-down on the artworks that have achieved our era’s finest and rarest feat: virality. Read on for how these art-historical works have been reimagined for the age of social media.

No one knows who created the painting of this dying woman, and we don’t know who the sitter was either. All we know is that this is exactly how we feel when someone sends us an email after 5 p.m. Well, maybe when anyone sends us any email… ever.

The oil on canvas painting was made in 1621, and is held in the collection of the Rouen Museum of Fine Art. There is a short text in Latin in the top right-hand corner of the reverse, explaining that it was made just two hours after the death of the 25-year-old sitter.

Deathbed paintings have generally gone out of fashion—other than in 2010, when Daphne Todd’s depiction of her deceased mother won the BP Portrait awardbut many artists between the 17th and 19th centuries were commissioned to paint people in their final moments. When Théodore Géricault painted General Henry Letellier after he killed himself, it is said that the General’s gun was still warm.


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A post shared by Classical Damn🎭 (@classicaldamn)

Woman on Her Deathbed is rare in its realistic approach to the subject. Idealism is abandoned and we see the full expression of someone recently, or imminently, dead. It’s no wonder, then, that it was selected by @classicaldamn to show the horror of receiving yet another email.

Guesses as to the artwork’s maker include Cornelis de Vos, a painter and art dealer who regularly collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens, and it has been theorized that he may have used his wife as the model, although she was alive a year later.

The “How The Email Finds Me” meme burst onto the scene during the pandemic, in response to the spike in email communications we all had to grapple with once we were working from home. The meme makes the point that the email nicety, “I hope this email finds you well,” is almost always actually finding us either near tears, near breakdown, or as is the case with the Woman on Her Deathbed edition, near death.

The first known example of the format was posted in April 2020 and uses a screenshot from Yoshifumi Kondō’s 1995 animated movie Whisper of the Heart, showing its teary-eyed protagonist, Shizuku Tsukishima.

Although we can all agree on the rarity of an email finding us genuinely well and happy to receive it, it seems unlikely that the platitude will go anywhere any time soon. Although we do like this alternative suggested by @samsanders in 2021…

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