A contemporary of such giants of mural painting as the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and Diego Rivera (1886-1957) as well as the American muralist icon Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Savage developed his own unique style of mural painting that melded classical form with a contemporary Art Deco style of painting.
Eugene Francis Savage was still very much a late proponent of allegorical academic figure painting, a tradition which he continued while he was a Professor at Yale well into the middle of the twentieth century. Savage had previously been awarded the Prix de Rome Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago. During his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome from 1912-1915 he had ample opportunity to study the Roman and Greek sculptures that dot this ancient city. Savage learned to model his figures in a classical academic style, creating drawings of the human form and studying traditional mural techniques. Such intimate first hand knowledge of classical sculpture coupled with the education he received from the great color theorist Hermann Groeber (1865-1935) in Munich in 1913 as well as his presumed exposure to Expressionist Art that was emerging in that German city at the time directly influenced the direction of Savage’s art. A devoted advocate of academic painting Savage incorporated these classical elements and allegorical subject matter within a thoroughly modern color palette of rich luxurious jewel like tones. The resulting creation is a highly sophisticated work that melds the old seamlessly with the new in a format that represents unique Savage’s painting style.
Our painting directly relates to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are described in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, called the Book of Revelation of Jesus Christ to Saint John the Evangelist at 6:1-8. The chapter tells of a "'book'/'scroll' in God's right hand that is sealed with seven seals". The Lamb of God/Lion of Judah (Jesus Christ) opens the first four of the seven seals, which summons forth four allegorical beings who ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses. The four riders are commonly agreed to represent Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death, the harbingers of the Last Judgment. Our example depicts at least three of these Biblical riders. The rider of the reddish brown horse symbolizes War and exacts his slaughter as seen in the ghostly figure of a woman prominently prone in the foreground of the painting. Close by her inert body stands erect a scythe, the most common symbol of Death appropriated from icons of Greek and Roman paganism. A dark or black horse is seen in the background, symbol of Famine. An oboe or stringed instrument without strings may symbolize the loss of music, joy, and even life itself. In the center of the canvas is the rider of the fourth or pale horse whose skeletal rider personifies Death, who purportedly will set a divine apocalypse upon the world as the harbinger of the Last Judgment marking the end of the world. The entire painting is replete with prophetic imagery and Biblical allusions. A similar allegorical mural of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Eugene Savage can be found in the Elks National Veterans Memorial and Headquarters Building in Chicago.