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The Art History of Pandemics

Watercolour painting of a group of men standing on an outdoor porch around a table working on rat carcasses. A group of men stand watching them in the background, and a man stands on the right of the painting holding a tray with a bottle of water and food.
India: a laboratory in which dead rats are being examined as part of a plague-prevention programme. Watercolour, by E. Schwarz, 1915/1935 (?). Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

I’ve been writing this from April to July 2020, when the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Amidst all of the fears and frustrations and disruptions of the everyday, I’ve been finding some comfort in the art and visual culture that came out of previous pandemics and epidemics from history. The Black Death used to feel like a distant historical curiosity; now, I can start to understand even a little bit of what the atmosphere might have been like.

Below, I want to take you through the diverse, beautiful, interesting, and, unfortunately, relatable art history of seven of the deadliest pandemics and epidemics throughout history, from the 100s to present day. I hope it brings some perspective or enjoyment during the strange times we’re in.

165–180: Antonine Plague. Killed ca. 5 million.

Monochrome engraving of a man wrapped in a drapery with angel wings and holding a sword flying from a cluster of clouds towards the ground. On the ground are people lying down in misery as if dying. A man holds his hands up in prayer. In the background is a town where two men carry someone on a stretcher.
The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. Engraving by J.G. Levasseur after J. Delaunay. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

I’m going in consecutive order here, so let’s start with the earliest large-scale outbreak I could find: the Antonine plague. This one took place in the ancient Roman Empire and possibly also Eastern Han China. It’s estimated to have killed around five million people, completely devastated the army, and might even have killed a Roman Emperor or two (Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius).

Illustration of a group of seven figures seated within a square with a decorated border. Three figures are sitting in a vertical row on the right and left, while one figure sits in the top centre.
A group of physicians in an image from the Vienna Dioscurides, an early 6th-century Byzantine Greek illuminated manuscript. Galen is in the top centre.

This pandemic is sometimes called the Plague of Galen after the famous physician Galen, who is depicted in the top centre of the illustration above (made several centuries after the pandemic). He recorded descriptions of the disease, mentioning fever, diarrhea, sore throat, and skin eruptions on the ninth day of the illness. Based on his observations, scholars have speculated that the disease could have been smallpox or measles. Other evidence that lends itself to the smallpox theory is apparently depictions of possible smallpox pustules on certain archaeological finds; however, I haven’t been able to find any representations of these to show you.

In fact, one thing that I discovered while researching this article is that there are very few remaining depictions of historical pandemics from the actual periods in which they happened. Many of the images we think depict certain pandemics (especially the Black Death, which we will get to in a bit) are actually depictions of recurring diseases such as smallpox or leprosy. This is why many depictions that I could find of these early pandemics are drawings, prints, and paintings that were made many years after the pandemics happened. The print at the top of this section is a good example, depicting the Antonine plague around 1,700 years after the event.

What we can look at from the time, however, is architecture—not just what was built, but what wasn’t built. Architectural evidence seems to show that there was a halt in civic building projects between 166 and 180, one possible artistic consequence of the pandemic.

735–737: Japanese smallpox epidemic. Killed ca 1 million.

Woodblock print depicting a man holding a bow with arrows on his back and a sword at his hip. He looks over his shoulders towards two smaller figures. One of them is shirtless with red pants and shrieks while holding out their arms. Behind this figure is a clothed figure looking away towards the edge of the image.
A woodblock print depicting Minamoto no Tametomo defeating a smallpox demon. The print is by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, from his series Shinkei Sanjurokuten (New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts) (1889–1892).

The Japanese smallpox epidemic in the 700s was the first of many recorded smallpox epidemics throughout Japan’s history, and probably killed around a third of the entire population

The main reason I wanted to include this pandemic is because of the Japanese smallpox demon, which is represented in lots of great prints and drawings. Smallpox was initially thought to be caused by an onryō, a vengeful spirit from Japanese folklore. However, over the centuries, the specific spirit that caused smallpox was eventually given the name hōsōshin, which translates to ‘smallpox god’. This deity caused smallpox rather than offered protection from it.

Traditionally, the hōsōshin was chased away by placing effigies at the boundaries of villages. Families also tried to appease it by building shrines, burning incense, and offering flowers in their homes. The colour red was often associated with smallpox; apparently, the hōsōshin was afraid of this colour, as well as of dogs.

Tametomo banishes the smallpox demon from the Island of Oshima. Colour woodcut by Yoshikazu, 1851/1853. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The above print from the nineteenth century illustrates the tale of the legendary figure Chinsei Hachiro Tametomo banishing a hōsōshin from the island Oshima. The demon is so small in this print because it apparently shrunk to the size of a pea in response to his threats and floated out to sea. This story must have reflected some sort of comfort or wishful thinking to communities that had been ravaged by smallpox on and off throughout the centuries.

(By the way, this is not the only smallpox deity around—Ṣọ̀pọ̀na, for example, is the god of smallpox in the Yoruba religion.)

1347–1351: Black Death. Killed ca. 75–200 million.

Painting depicting a group of people carrying coffins. They are moving towards the right half of the painting, where people are digging graves and burying the coffins in the ground.
The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death. Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the chronicles by Gilles Li Muisis (1272-1352).

Arguably the most infamous historical pandemic. This is where I want to point out one of the most surprising things I found while researching this post: there are no depictions of the Black Death—that is, people with the disease itself—painted during the plague, as far as is currently known. According to this academic paper (also explored in this NPR article), most of the images we think depict the Black Death—showing people sick with boils or red marks all over their skin—are actually images of other diseases, such as smallpox or leprosy. It’s true that one symptom of bubonic plague seems to have been buboes in the groin, beck, or armpit, but these wouldn’t have completely covered the body.

Theories of why there are no depictions of the disease itself from the time of the plague include that artists were worried about getting symptoms themselves (sick people were, after all, quarantined), or that people simply didn’t have a good idea of what the disease actually was. It wasn’t until centuries after it ended, when smaller outbreaks popped up over the years, that people started connecting the dots.

What we can see from this time, however, are depictions of the consequences of the Black Death. The image at the top of this section, from 1349, is one of the earliest known images from the plague, showing people in the city of Tournai burying coffins of those who died.

Monochrome print depicting three dancing skeletons. A fourth skeleton on the far left is playing a wind instrument, while a fifth skeleton lies on the ground beneath the others covered in a large piece of fabric, raising its hand.
Michael Wolgemut, Dance of Death, leaf from The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

One of the most striking artistic motifs that arose because of the Black Death was the ‘Dance of Death’, or ‘Danse Macabre’. This motif consisted of dancing skeletons, and was an allegory on the universality of death.

Painting of a scene on a field in which skeletons wearing white pieces of fabric are trying to make the humans in between them dance along with them. A skeleton on the far left plays a wind instrument. To the far left of the painting is a man sitting at a wooden podium and looking at the scene.
Bernt Notke: Surmatants, 1475-1499. Art Museum of Estonia.

As with some of the other pandemics, there are also plenty of artworks depicting the Black Death after it happened. One of my favourite examples draws on the ‘Dance of Death’ motif to evoke the pandemic: The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel from ca. 1562, showing an army of skeleton killing and setting fire to a village:

Oil painting on panel depicting a panorama of an army of skeletons wreaking havoc on large groups of humans across a blackened, desolate landscape. Fires burn in the distance, and the sea is littered with shipwrecks. In the foreground, skeletons haul a wagon full of skulls. On the right, masses of people are herded into a coffin-shaped trap decorated with crosses.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562. Oil on panel. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

There are also plenty of depictions of the bubonic plague from later outbreaks. One piece of imagery I wanted to mention is that of the plague doctor figure with a beak-like mask, seen below in a drawing from the 1665 London plague, a famous later outbreak of the bubonic plague that decimated the city. These plague doctor figures are extremely iconic, appearing in popular culture like films and video games.

1492–onwards: Americas and Oceania smallpox and other epidemics due to colonisation. Killed at least 56 million.

Monochrome illustration consisting of a grid of three separate scenes. The scene taking up the entire right hand side of the illustration depicts three people wrapped in blankets lying on a textured surface with pillows under their heads. Their bodies are covered in pustules and their expressions are painted. The scene in the bottom left shows a person wrapped in a blanket lying on a similar textured surface with their body covered in pustules. A wisp of something escapes from their mouth. The scene on the top left shows a clothed person without pustules caring for a person wrapped in a blanket with their body covered in pustules. A wisp of something escapes the former person’s mouth. The number 114 is printed above them.
Illustration of indigenous victims of smallpox by an unknown indigenous Mesoamerican artist. The image is found in Book twelve of the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century ethnographic research study in Mesoamerica by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, currently held in Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Florence.

This “pandemic” technically consists of many devastating outbreaks over the course of centuries, all related to one thing: European colonial expansion. Many different diseases were brought by the Europeans to the countries they colonised. I’ll mostly be addressing smallpox here, as it seems to have been one of the most destructive.

The spread of smallpox to indigenous communities has been responsible for the deaths of at least 56 million people. I say “at least” 56 million, because this figure is taken from research on the amount of native Americans who died from smallpox in the Americas. However, it doesn’t include the millions of indigenous people who died of imported epidemics in Australia and other colonised regions.

The Aztec drawings at the top of this section come from the 1500s and depict victims of smallpox amongst the indigenous Mexican population. They were drawn by unknown indigenous artists for the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century ethnographic research study by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún Columbus.

Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492, and his expeditions paved the way for Spanish colonisation, with groups of Spanish conquistadors successfully conquering the Mexican Aztec and Peruvian Incan empires. The smallpox virus played an important role in them doing so. Having been exposed to the virus in Europe, the Spanish invaders were largely immune, but the indigenous populations in the Americas were completely vulnerable to the virus. The smallpox epidemic that ravaged the Aztec empire apparently began on the same night that the indigenous population drove the conquistadors out of what is now Mexico City. The many who died from the disease included the Emperor of Mexico. The subsequent decimation of their population due to the epidemic made both conquest and colonisation by the Spanish much easier.

In North America, a notable outbreak from 1616 to 1619 in New England is sometimes referred to as “The Great Dying”. In the Native American communities that it hit, it’s estimated that anywhere between 50 to 90% of the populations died. It’s unclear exactly what the disease was, but it could have been smallpox, bubonic plague, or another imported disease. One research article suggests leptospirosis, caused by rodents from European ships infecting indigenous reservoirs.

Ink painting on paper of a man with feathers in his hair raising his right hand in the air. Behind him is a group of people with frustrated and angry expressions. They are facing a group of men in European soldier uniforms who look concerned or offended.
Benjamin West, The Indians Giving a Talk to Colonel Bouquet in a conference at a Council Fire Near his Camp on the Banks of Muskingum in America, in October 1764, 1765, 1765-1766. Grey wash and ink on paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

One infamous event was the deliberate spread of smallpox by Europeans in Native American communities through gifting blankets that were infected with the virus. The evidence for this is letters sent during Pontiac’s War in 1763, during which a loose confederation of Native American tribes rose up against the British settlers in their regions. The letters in question were between Jeffery Amherst and Colonel Henry Bouquet in July 1763. In a post-script of one of his letters Bouquet wrote: “P.S. I will try to inocculate [sic] the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself.” Amherst responded with approval. Historians disagree on exactly what the results were of this exchange, and whether the orders from Amherst were carried out, but other evidence suggests that, a month before this exchange, “two Blankets and an Handkerchief” were actually taken out of a smallpox hospital at Fort Pitt and delivered to the Native Americans. The full extent of the plans are still unclear, but it seems that some form of biological warfare using smallpox was indeed committed.

The above 1765 engraving by Benjamin West depicted Pontiac’s negotiations with Colonel Bouquet that eventually ended the conflict. It is titled “The Indians Giving a Talk to Colonel Bouquet in a conference at a Council Fire Near his Camp on the Banks of Muskingum in America, in October 1764, 1765”. I’ve seen versions of this print around the Internet with descriptions that may imply he was confronting Bouquet about the smallpox blankets. While this doesn’t seem to be the subject matter, I can understand why it might be interpreted that way, with the obvious outrage on Pontaic’s face and the shocked demeanour of Bouquet.

Monochrome print depicting a group of European men holding rifles or axes standing in the Australian bush. They are facing an Aboriginal woman who is sitting on the ground inside the foliage, looking at them with a concerned expression.
Captains Hunter, Collins & Johnston with Governor Phillip, Surgeon White &c. visiting a distressed female native of New South Wales at a hut near Port Jackson. Published by Alexr. Hogg, 1793. National Library of Australia.

The final epidemic I want to touch on in this section is the smallpox epidemic in Australia that apparently killed up to 70% or even 90% of the nearby indigenous populations. 

In April 1789, fifteen months after the First Fleet arrived to establish the first colony in Australia, a major smallpox epidemic broke out in Sydney. While most of the British settlers had a level of immunity to the disease, the indigenous population did not. Apparently, the epidemic was first detected by the Europeans when members of Aboriginal communities were found, according to Newton Fowell, “laying Dead on the Beaches and in the Caverns of Rocks”.

A likely cause of the outbreak was the “variolas matter” brought with Surgeon John White on the First Fleet. This was pus from smallpox victims that he intended to use to create immunity amongst children in the colony. It’s unclear how this “variolas matter” would have spread to the native communities. Some writers have argued that it was a deliberate act of biological warfare.

I have, as you might expect, not found any depictions of this epidemic in art or visual culture. (Apparently, however, Aboriginal Australian traditional songs retold the story of the outbreak afterwards.) The image above shows British soldiers visiting a “distressed” indigenous Australian woman in 1793. While the title indicates that she is in distress, it’s unclear why; this is maybe why some online sources attribute this image to the smallpox outbreak (although I couldn’t find further evidence for this).

However, you might find the below illustrations interesting. These were made in the 1880s, reflecting an outbreak in Melbourne during those years. The imagery in them—from quarantine to border controls—is familiar territory for us during COVID-19:

Monochrome illustration consisting of a grid of five different scenes, each one with a small label. A scene of two people handing something to a person over a fence is labelled “a welcome visitor”. A visitor of a person riding a penny-farthing is labelled “a messenger”. A scene of a neighbourhood of houses with a police officer on the corner is labelled “quarantine in Richmond”. A scene of a group of houses surrounded by a wooden fence is labelled “the sanatorium”. A scene of a police officer pointing towards a woman facing the other way is labelled “go back please”. A scene of a horse pulling a wagon is labelled “the ambulance”.
THE SMALL POX [i.e. SMALLPOX] IN MELBOURNE [VIC.], Melbourne : David Syme and Co. 
September 3, 1884. State Library Victoria.
Monochrome illustration of a group of people sitting inside a carriage, all looking towards a uniformed man looking through the window with a stern expression.
THE SMALL-POX SCARE – BORDER PRECAUTIONS – “ANYONE GOT SMALL-POX?”, Melbourne : David Syme and Co., July 27, 1881. State Library Victoria.

1855–1960: The Third Plague pandemic. Killed more than 12 million.

Monochrome photograph showing a group of British officers washing an Indian man in a wooden tub.
Hospital staff disinfecting patients during the outbreak of bubonic plague in Karachi, India. Photograph, 1897. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Did you think that the bubonic plague disappeared after the Black Death in medieval Europe? Nope! The last major outbreak happened just over a hundred years ago and didn’t disappear until the 1960s(!). This outbreak is known as the “Third Plague” and started in Yunnan, China, in 1855. It was relatively contained in China until it hit Hong Kong in 1894 (in an outbreak known as the “Hong Kong plague”) and spread to all inhabited continents, as Hong Kong was an international trading port.

Two medals lying on a dark surface. One of them has a yellow and red ribbon attached, and depicts a man carrying another man on a stretcher and holding away the angel of death. A nurse leans towards the man on the stretcher. The year 1894 is displayed below. The other medal has the text “For services rendered during the plague of 1894’ surrounded by the text “Presented by the Hong Kong community” going around the edge.
Hong Kong plague medal, England, 1894. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In Hong Kong, the pandemic brutally hit Tai Ping Shan, one of the earliest Chinese settlements in Hong Kong established by the British in the 1840s. The houses were tiny and window-less, with multiple generations of a family crammed inside. There was no proper sewage or drainage. It was the perfect environment for an illness to spread. In total, around 2,500 people died from May to September 1894. To try and contain the outbreak, the authorities imposed strict measures including rapid disposal of the dead, isolation of the sick, and disinfection of affected households. Soon after, Tai Ping Shan’s houses were demolished and its residents forcibly evicted in a move that heightened political and racial tensions. 

The above medal was given by the Hong Kong authorities to nurses, civil servants, police, and British army and naval personnel who helped during the epidemic. It shows a Chinese man being tended to by a nurse, while a man holds off the angel of death. It highlights the heroic side of how the authorities handled the epidemic, rather than any of the problems I described.

Monochrome photograph of a room lined with beds where people lie wrapped in blankets. A welldressed man and woman stand in the centre of the room facing the camera.
Bombay plague epidemic, 1896-1897: interior of a plague hospital. Photograph attributed to Clifton & Co. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

From Hong Kong, the outbreak continued to India in 1896, killing over twelve million people over the next thirty years. It initially affected port cities such as Bombay (in the 1896 Bombay plague), Pune, Calcutta, and Karachi, but spread inland, mainly to northern and western India. The photos I’ve included here show attempts at controlling the plague in Bombay and Karachi in 1896-97, through plague hospitals and segregation camps.

The colonial British government’s attempts at controlling the plague led to protests and riots, as they were considered culturally invasive and offensive. Initially, British search parties burned down and destroyed infected buildings after forcefully evicting the tenants. However, this became impractical, and instead they started destroying the bedding, clothes, and furnishings of the infected, and forcefully sanitising their buildings. When they found the body of a victim, they immediately removed it for incineration. The British government changed course around 1899 in response to widespread protests and resistance, for example by involving more indigenous medicinal methods in their practices.

Staff of the Runchore segregation camp, set up by the Karachi Plague Committee, India. Photograph, 1897. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

1918–1920: Spanish Flu. Killed ca 17–50 million.

Oil painting on canvas of a man in a dark robe sitting in a chair with a quilt on his lap. His body faces our left, but he turns his head to look at the viewer.
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919. Oil on canvas. Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, The Fine Art Collections

The Spanish flu is one of the only pandemics that we have explicit artistic representations of, and that’s because it affected and even killed some of the world’s most famous artists, such as Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele.

The Spanish flu was a deadly influenza virus that lasted around fifteen months and infected around a third of the world’s population. It was named the Spanish flu because, to maintain morale during World War I, early reports of the illness were censored by countries like the UK, the US, Germany, and France. In neutral Spain, however, newspapers were free to report on it.

Illustration depicting different views of the Spanish flu virus. Each one is labelled with a handwritten description underneath. At the bottom is a typed label reading “Diagrams and manuscripts to illustrate Portal Cirrhosis”.
John George Adami, Drawing of the 1918 Influenza. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

As I mentioned, several well known artists were infected with the virus. Egon Schiele was one of them. He was an Austrian painter, famous for his raw, expressive paintings, particularly his intense and often sexual self portraits.

Oil painting on canvas depicting a naked man and woman posing with a baby against a dark background. The woman sits with the baby in between her legs, looking towards her right. The man sits behind her, looking at the viewer and touching his right collarbone.
Egon Schiele, Die Familie, 1918. Oil on canvas.

In 1918, Schiele painted the above self portrait of him and his family, featuring his wife, Edith Schiele, and their unborn child. It was never completed. Just a few months later, his wife died of the Spanish flu, never having had the chance to give birth. Egon Schiele drew this striking portrait of her on 28 October 1918, the day before she died:

Drawing of a woman’s head and hand touching her face. She looks at the viewer with a tired expression. Her hair is a messy bun.
Egon Schiele, Portrait of the dying Edith Schiele, 1918

I find this portrait incredibly emotional. Not only is it a portrait that someone drew of their wife the day before she passed, but Egon Schiele himself died only a couple of days later, on 31 October. 

It wasn’t the only portrait that Schiele drew of his loved ones dying of the Spanish flu. A few months earlier he had created the below portrait mourning his mentor, Gustav Klimt, who died in February that year, possibly of the Spanish flu. Klimt was another well known Austrian artist from the Vienna Secession movement. Schiele visited the morgue of Vienna General Hospital the day after Klimt died there to create the portrait.

Drawing of a man’s head. His eyes are closed.
Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt on his deathbed, 1918.

Edvard Munch, who you might know as the artist who painted The Scream, was also stricken with the Spanish flu. He, however, survived. He painted two self portraits of himself: one during his bout with the disease (seen at the top of this section), and one after he had survived it, below.

Oil painting on canvas depicting a man looking towards the viewer wearing a dark coat. Behind him is a living room lit up by a large window.
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu, 1919. Oil on canvas. Munch-museet.

1981–present: HIV/AIDS global epidemic. Has killed over 32 million people so far.

Poster depicting three yellow stylised figures, each with a pink x on the chest, against a red background. The figure on the far left covers its eyes, the figure in the middle covers its ears, and the figure on the far right covers its mouth. Across the top of the poster is a blue section with the words “IGNORANCE = FEAR”. Across the bottom is a blue section with the words “SILENCE = DEATH”, a pink triangle, and then “FIGHT AIDS, ACT UP”.
Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death, 1989. Courtesy Keith Haring Foundation

The last outbreak I want to look at is one that is still ongoing: HIV/AIDS. Some consider this a pandemic, while the WHO uses the term “global epidemic” to describe it. The HIV virus probably originated in the 1920s, and AIDS—the disease caused by the HIV virus—was officially recognised in 1981. 

What many people might think of as the “HIV/AIDS epidemic” is likely the AIDS crisis in the 1980s United States. At the time, there was no cure for the disease, and thousands of people died. Because it largely affected marginalised LGBTQ+ communities, the disease was heavily stigmatised and famously initially ignored by the government. In response, activists responded by raising awareness, creating care and education centres—and making art.

A poster with a single pink triangle against a black backdrop above the words “SILENCE = DEATH” in large white letters.
A pink triangle against a black backdrop with the words ‘Silence=Death’ representing an advertisement for the Silence=Death Project used by permission by ACT-UP, The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Colour lithograph, 1987. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

In 1987, six gay activists in New York formed the Silence = Death Project and designed the above poster for it, using the pink triangle as the logo. The pink triangle was already well established as a pro-gay liberation symbol in the United States at that time. The six men who created the project later joined the protest group ACT UP and offered the logo to the group, with which it remains closely identified.

The “SILENCE = DEATH” slogan, “ACT UP” name, and pink triangle are all used in Keith Haring’s work Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death (1989) at the top of this section. Keith Haring was a well known American artist who used his art to advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness. The incredibly strong image depicts three figures covering their ears, eyes, and mouth, referring to the silence of a government that was looking the other way. 

Haring passed away in 1990 of AIDS-related complications. He wasn’t the only well known artist who passed away from the disease during this time: others include Robert Mapplethorpe, Felix-Gonzales Torres, David Robilliard, Peter Hujar, and Derek Jarman. Multiple beautiful and heartbreaking artworks were created about the crisis. One of my favourites is Untitled (Falling Buffalos) by David Wojnarowicz. The imagery of buffalos falling off a cliff is a metaphor for a generation of AIDS victims falling to their inevitable deaths.

However, while the 1980s AIDS crisis has received the most attention in the West when it comes to awareness of this disease, it’s important to remember that this has always affected the entire world and continues to do so today, with Sub-Saharan Africa currently being the most affected region. Below are a selection of posters from the past few decades created to raise awareness about AIDS in a variety of languages and countries:

Poster with the header “I said NO to AIDS” over an illustration in grey, brown, and green of a crying woman next to a bar fending off the advances of a man holding a bottle. Underneath the illustration are the words “I AM NOT FOR SALE”.
AIDS Control Programme, Ministry of Health, Uganda. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Poster with the header “THE QUILT PROJECT” above an image from a quilt made up of different patches memorialising AIDS victims. Underneath the image is the text “see it and understand” and then “AN AUSTRALIAN AIDS MEMORIAL”.
Panels from the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt. Colour lithograph. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Poster in which an Indian woman wearing a headscarf and pierced ear ornament hands a condom to a man in front of a door within a decorative leaf border. Text in Hindi is written on top of the image.
Advert for Nirodh condoms to prevent AIDS. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)


Painting of a man sitting on a chair inside a room. He holds the outstretched arm of a young boy and inserts a needle into it. A woman stands behind the young boy and holds his shoulder.
Ernest Board, Dr Jenner performing his first vaccination, on James Phipps, a boy of 8. May 14 1796. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

I want to finish with this painting from around 1796. It depicts Dr Edward Jenner performing his first vaccination against smallpox on the young boy James Phipps. Smallpox was the first virus epidemic ended by vaccine. Today, it’s been certified as globally eradicated by the WHO. Looking at all of the countless deaths caused by just this one disease, this image sort of stands out as a glimmer of hope.

Viewing the art in this article from the perspective of a contemporary pandemic, there are themes that many of us can currently relate to: depictions of quarantines and social isolation, hospitalisations, deaths, and loved ones affected by disease. Another unmistakeable trend that comes through is how much worse marginalised communities were affected by these diseases; something that holds true for COVID-19 today.

Especially striking, I think, is the lack of imagery of most of these outbreaks; the idea either that these outbreaks were too dangerous and widespread to properly (or safely) record, or perhaps that they seemed so big and incomprehensible that they were hard to depict or sum up through art. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of images live on from COVID-19, and how it will be remembered in years and decades to come.

I hope that looking back at how people over thousands of years have experienced pandemics makes processing our current situation a little easier and maybe even helps you connect to those histories—it certainly did for me. As always, feel free to let me know any suggestions of other images that depict historical pandemics and I might add them to the post!


Why are Portraits so Important in Art History?


  1. Hannah

    Thank you for taking the time to present this enlightening article.

  2. keenan julies

    Great article!

  3. Craig Michael Mear

    I read your article with interest. On the smallpox epidemic in Sydney you write that you could not find any depiction of smallpox from the time. That is incorrect. the drawing you include is indeed of a smallpox victim, a young woman, encountered by an exploring party to Broken Bay. John Hunter accompanied that party and drew the image that you show.

    • admin

      Hi Craig, thanks for this! Would you by any chance have the source that confirms what you write? As I wrote in the article, while I found some online sources referring to it as a depiction of smallpox, I couldn’t find a reliable one.

      Sharing the source with me would definitely be much appreciated, as it would be great to confirm that it is indeed a depiction of smallpox!

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