Listening to Art

08.11: Thomas Couture, The Death of Seneca (Sketch)


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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume eight, number eleven: The Death of Seneca (Sketch) by Thomas Couture.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

The Seneca named in the title of this painting is Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, who was born to an elite family about 4 BCE in the Roman Empire in what is now Spain. In brief, he was a statesman, playwright and one of the greatest Stoic philosophers (his Epistles are well worth reading). He was at one time exiled by the emperor Claudius and later became advisor to Nero. In 65 CE there was a failed conspiracy to kill Nero, and though it is unlikely Seneca was involved, he was forced to commit suicide as punishment.

Seneca, as a Stoic, had been preparing for death all his life. He had with him his wife Paulina who, Tacitus writes, wanted to die with him, though another source says Seneca decided for her. They cut their wrists, then Seneca gave a speech to the friends and slaves assembled around them. Seneca’s blood did not flow strongly, so he cut behind his knees, but that did not work either. Paulina was taken to her bedroom and bandaged; she survived. Seneca took hemlock (the method Socrates used to kill himself), but still did not die. Finally he was put into a hot bath and the steam suffocated him.

Emily Wilson’s The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca describes the death scene and analyzes the contemporary sources. She concludes (p. 208):

The death Seneca had anticipated for so long had finally arrived. It was, like his life, a highly theatrical moment, composed of a series of compromises. The failure of each successive method of death is both terrible (he could not even kill himself successfully) and blackly funny.… Seneca’s wish to control his final moments was highly visible here, but so too was the impossibility for him of achieving the Stoic ideal of perfect constancy and calm within the pressures and violence of Neronian Rome, and given Seneca’s own frailties. One can sneer at a death that took so long and that was so difficult to achieve; Seneca failed repeatedly at something that everybody manages, in the end. But one can also admire the ways that he kept trying, despite his failures—just as he had done in life, in his constant attempts to continue along the path of philosophical virtue.

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 40.5 cm wide by 32 cm high.

Now let’s listen to The Death of Seneca (Sketch) by Thomas Couture, recorded while on tour from the Ordrupgaard in Denmark, at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, on 25 August 2018.

Waveform of the field recording.

That was The Death of Seneca (Sketch) by Thomas Couture. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.

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Bibliography

All web sites accessed as of date of publication.

Ordrupgaard. “Ordrupgaard’s Travelling Collection.” Ordrupgaard. https://ordrupgaard.dk/en/ordrupgaards-samling-paa-rejse/.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Seneca the Younger,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seneca_the_Younger.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Thomas Couture,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Couture.

Wilson, Emily. “Emily Wilson.” Emily Wilson. https://www.emilyrcwilson.com/.

Wilson, Emily. The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.