The Death of Edith Cavell

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World War I and American Art, which opens at PAFA on November 4, focuses on the myriad ways in which American artists experienced and reacted to the war. The exhibition is organized around eight themes, including “Debating the War,” which notably includes The Murder of Edith Cavell, by George Bellows.

The "murder" of Edith Cavell was one of the most widely publicized stories of the Great War, and in death she became the war’s iconic female victim. At the time of her arrest by the Germans in 1915, Cavell was a 49-year-old English Red Cross nurse supervising a hospital in Brussels. The Germans accused her of secretly helping hundreds of wounded Allied prisoners to escape into Holland. She admitted to the charges against her and the Germans sentenced her to death. Despite a worldwide outcry for clemency, a firing squad dispatched her at dawn on the morning of October 12, 1915.

Experts in international law agreed that the Germans were well within their rights to execute Nurse Cavell, but the wizards of British propaganda discerned a golden opportunity in the sentencing, and they made the most of it. At least 28 books and pamphlets about her were issued during the war, as well as commemorative coins and stamps and special illustrated press editions. Occasionally, license was made to envision her as a martyred young beauty. An unfounded rumor circulated that she was executed in her nurse’s uniform, which was not true, and that, because she fainted to the ground at the last moment, the commanding officer of the firing squad, rather than revive her, stepped up and put a bullet through her head. This was also never confirmed, but it made for a more heart-wrenching story, and postcards in various languages dramatically portrayed that outcome.

Americans were particularly distressed by Nurse Cavell’s death. According to one history of wartime propaganda, written on the eve of World War II, “She was middle-class, America’s maiden aunt. The profession of nursing is one for which Americans have only the greatest respect: the Germans could not have outraged this country more if they had executed Florence Nightingale. . . . She was the ideal heroine.”

Given the inflammatory propaganda and hysterical overstatement that circulated in America about the death of Nurse Cavell, the acclaimed lithograph by George Bellows, The Murder of Edith Cavell, which he later converted into an eerily beautiful oil painting, might have seemed especially real and authentic precisely because of its low-key, non-sensational manner. The artist chose to show the nurse neither dead nor dying, but rather in a quiet moment preceding execution. The depiction may have seemed especially “real” to viewers of the time precisely because it did not venture into the histrionic territory of previous images and descriptions of the event.

Instead, Bellows showed Nurse Cavell, radiant in white, stoically descending a prison staircase into a courtyard, in which guards engage in nocturnal conversation or lose themselves in slumber. The subject calls to mind Old Master scenes of martyrdom and salvation, such as Raphael’s Deliverance of St. Peter from Prison (1514), in which a saintly figure withstands the oppressive darkness of captivity, and Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection (1463–65), in which sleeping and sluggish guards surrounding Christ’s sepulcher remain unaware of the miracle in their midst. Thus Bellows endowed the politically charged execution of the British nurse with an aura of timelessness that enhanced its timely value as a piece of anti-German propaganda.

Written by David M. Lubin

David M. Lubin, Wake Forest University, is the Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art at Oxford University. He is the co-curator of World War I and American Art and the author of Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2016).

October 11, 2016

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