She looks like she is sleeping, her beautiful features resting gently upon one hand. Yet, when the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck created a likeness of the aristocratic beauty Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, in 1633, he was painting a two-day-old corpse, propped up on her deathbed. 

Rumours persist that Digby, a keen alchemist, was the architect of his wife’s death

Stricken with grief upon discovering that his wife had died suddenly during the night, at the age of 33, Venetia’s husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, called for Van Dyck, court artist to King Charles I, to paint her before “the surgeons and women” arrived. 

Sensitively, Van Dyck set to work, ignoring the gruesome realities of death, such as the rapid onset of rigor mortis. Across Venetia’s pale, comely neck, he arranged a string of pearls. Meanwhile, on the hem of her sheet, he placed a delicate pink rose, shedding its petals. According to Digby, who believed that Van Dyck’s painting, which now hangs in London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, was the artist’s “Master peece”, the rose seems “to wither apace, even whiles you looke upon it… a fitt Embleme to express the state her bodie then was in”. 

- The hidden life of Frida Kahlo

- How Van Gogh found Japan in Provence

- Is destruction as powerful as creation?

Admittedly, even today, rumours persist that Digby, a keen alchemist, was the architect of his wife’s death. Some say that he administered a concoction of viper’s blood, which he hoped would preserve her beauty. Others suggest that he killed her in a fit of jealousy – after all, he supposedly once remarked, apropos her notorious promiscuity, that “a wise man, and lusty, could make an honest woman out of a brothell-house”. In a rare move, the Crown ordered an autopsy, though its findings have not survived. 

In both public and private, however, Digby appeared devastated by Venetia’s death. He wrote to his brother that Van Dyck’s deathbed portrait of her “is the onely constant companion I now have. It standeth all day over against my chaire and table… and all night when I goe into my chamber I sett it close by my beddside, and by the faint light of candle, me thinkes I see her dead indeed.” 

In other words, if Digby’s letter is to be believed, Van Dyck’s modestly sized oil painting, less than one square metre, offered solace and comfort to a heartbroken widower. If the rose in the picture is an “Embleme” of life’s transience, so the painting, itself, is emblematic of what we might call the art of grief. 

Grieving and engraving

Aside from funerary monuments in churches, which were principally commemorative, grief in Western art before Van Dyck’s era, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, was generally the preserve of religious painting and sculpture focusing on the tragic story of Christ’s death. 

A curator of a new Rodin exhibition suggested his famous The Thinker should be called The Mourner

Michelangelo’s heart-stopping marble Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica – the only sculpture he ever signed, depicting a sweet-looking Mary cradling Jesus’s dead body – is a particularly affecting and well-known example, but countless others could be offered. A painting by Michelangelo’s High Renaissance friend Sebastiano del Piombo, on which Michelangelo collaborated, sticks in my mind: Sebastiano’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c 1512-16), is, according to the National Gallery, where it was shown recently, “the first large-scale nocturnal landscape in history”. Its moonlit sky fits the sombre mood. 

Of course, the traditional theme of the Lamentation of Christ was depicted by many of art history’s most famous names, from Giotto and Mantegna to Rubens and Rembrandt. They are just some of the thousands of artists who, over the centuries, have tackled grief as a subject, in some form. Indeed, the art of grief is so ubiquitous that sometimes we forget this is what we are looking at: the curator of a new Rodin exhibition at the British Museum generated headlines recently when he suggested that the Frenchman’s famous sculpture The Thinker should really be called ‘The Mourner’. “Look carefully at the hand and chin,” Ian Jenkins, an authority on ancient Greek art, an important influence on Rodin, told a Sunday newspaper. “If he was thinking, his hand would be cupped around his chin in pensive mode. But in this sculpture, the hand is supporting the chin. And in ancient Greece this is how mourning was depicted.” 

Type the word 'grief' into any international museum’s online search engine, and you will be inundated with results. In Britain, for instance, a search for the term on Tate’s website flags 143 artworks, offering a diverse cross-section of artistic responses to the same theme, spanning different periods. 

John Everett Millais’s meticulous oil painting Ophelia, for which the model Elizabeth Siddal posed in a bath over four months, is a celebrated visual expression of grief

In the 18th Century, for example, it was commonplace for artists to view grief through the lens of Shakespearean drama: the death of King Lear’s daughter Cordelia was a favourite subject. Meanwhile, in the 19th Century, John Everett Millais’s meticulous oil painting Ophelia (1851-52), for which the model Elizabeth Siddal posed in a bath over four months, is a celebrated, and highly poetic, visual expression of grief – as much of an icon of this powerful emotion as, say, Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin’s Symbolist masterpiece from the 1880s, Isle of the Dead. Ophelia depicts the Danish noblewoman from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, driven mad by grief for her murdered father, shortly before her death from drowning, after she has fallen into a “weeping brook”. 

Indeed, grief was an essential theme for artists during the Victorian age, when a complex “culture of mourning” reigned. Writing in The Art of Death (1991), the art historian Nigel Llewellyn notes that “a spectacular visual culture of death” was a hallmark of the 19th Century – something to which Tate’s collections amply attest. Alfred Gilbert’s 1877 terracotta Mourning Angel is, like Millais’s Ophelia, another quintessential example. 

According to our straw poll of search results on Tate’s site, 20th Century artists felt just as compelled as their Victorian forebears to tackle grief. Perhaps the greatest example at Tate is Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937), which is related to his epic mural Guernica of the same year, painted during the Spanish Civil War in response to the bombing of a Basque town by the German air force. An outraged, tragic masterpiece, executed with a sober monochrome palette evoking newsreel footage of atrocities, Guernica is the definitive 20th Century expression of collective grief. It was intended as a very public statement – but there are many examples of more private and intimate 20th Century paintings which touch on grief: witness Lucian Freud’s small portrait of his mother from 1973, currently hanging in Tate Britain’s All Too Human exhibition, which captures her grieving expression following the death of her husband, and the painter’s father, Ernst. 

Meanwhile, Francis Bacon’s Triptych August 1972, also in the Tate, manages to straddle both the private and public spheres. One of Bacon’s so-called Black Triptychs, it was painted in the aftermath of the suicide of his lover, George Dyer, who appears in the left-hand panel. The triptych therefore stands as an unforgettably personal, anguished record of the suffering of the artist, who is visible on the right. At the same time, the work has a timeless, classical quality: the ambiguous figures grappling before the dark portal in the centre are imbued with universal symbolic significance. 

Catharsis on canvas

Universal grief is also at the heart of Aftermath, a forthcoming exhibition at Tate Britain exploring the culture of mourning during World War One and into the ‘20s and ‘30s. Emma Chambers, the exhibition’s curator, argues that the war engendered a profound shift in the way that artists depicted grief, as the 19th Century receded into the distance. “Unlike Victorian mourning, where individual families experienced individual grief,” she says, “suddenly almost every single family across Europe was affected.” 

One consequence of this, she continues, was an official attempt, on the part of governments, “to create an appropriate visual culture for mourning”. The classical, allegorical funerary figures so beloved of the Victorians fell out of fashion. In their place, bodies such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission promoted a more uniform approach to the design of graves and war memorials, focusing on joint, national sacrifice, rather than the loss of individuals. “The result was a very orderly, symmetrical and controlled visual language,” says Chambers, “far removed from the total chaos of the battlefields, with their abandoned helmets, bodies and churned-up mud.” 

Historically, professional mourners have been compensated for guiding people through moments of loss, shaping and generating grief – Taryn Simon

The Cenotaph war memorial on London’s Whitehall, designed by Edwin Lutyens, is the archetypal example of this new approach: “There aren’t any figures, but instead an empty tomb that can stand for every soldier,” Chambers says. “Grieving families could use it as a universal symbol.” 

The universality of grief is still a theme to which contemporary artists are drawn today. Earlier this year, the US artist Taryn Simon won rave reviews for her moving installation An Occupation of Loss, staged in a subterranean auditorium in north London. For the work, which premiered in New York in 2016, Simon invited 21 “professional mourners” from countries all over the world – including Albania, Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Ghana and Venezuela – to perform in various nooks and corners of the atmospheric space, while an 85-strong audience were free to walk around, listening to each one. 

“Historically,” Simon explains, “professional mourners have been compensated for guiding people through moments of loss, shaping and generating grief.” As the half-hour work progressed, each performer began wailing, muttering, howling, singing, sobbing or ululating, in keeping with the tradition of their native culture. Quickly, all their keening, groaning lamentations merged into one great primal cacophony, echoing off the concrete architecture, subjecting the audience to an unsettling aural assault. 

“The thing that interests me,” explains Simon, “is that these sounds are beyond language. The professional mourners use things like melodised speech, or half-cried words – things that are neither music nor language.” She pauses. “It’s a space that’s very difficult to articulate, something that confronts or even confounds language.” As Simon says, we are all “vulnerable” when we experience grief. “Things get anarchic.”

Alastair Sooke is The Telegraph’s Critic at Large

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.