Death, the great leveller, has struck the lives of four very different women – young and old, widow and orphan, patrician and pauper – and united them all in grief. All are mourning on the morning after a night of death and desolation, and what underlies this association is not only a common theme expressed in so many ways, but also the parallels in each of the paintings.
What strikes us about these four paintings is that they cover the whole range of emotions with with one reacts to the death of a love one. We see desolation and more death, elation and new life, helplessness and fear, dignity and resilience. Everywhere we see pain and loss. In each painting, something – or rather, someone – is missing and being missed. Yet each woman holds on to an object: fan, flower, flask, excepting the pauper who has nothing to hold on to. Each soul is now manifestly alone in the world. Each face emits and conveys grief, sadness and a feeling of loss, but in a totally different way.
The old woman has been crushed and withering. One imagines that she is dying herself and resigned to her fate.
The woman in white is defiant, maybe even elated. One imagines that death has liberated her and/or the deceased.
The young girl is suffering, but unlike the old woman, she will recover and grow. One imagines that death has left her struggling against life all by herself. The way in which she wraps herself tightly in a blanket suggests vulnerability, but there is obviously enough strength in her to eventually go her way alone.
The lady at the bottom, though details are barely visible, seems to be the elegant, wealthy widow. One imagines that death for her means another social obligation, that appropriate mourning is her last service to a great husband and that she is waiting for a rest after a long period of strain and pain.
Sources: all in the public domain; my scans from postcards bought at Manchester Art Gallery and Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo. (c) Manchester City Galleries, Yale Center for British Art, Estate of W.R. Sickert, Ishibashi Foundation.