It´s very curious to find a painting like this in an artist dedicated mainly to paint battles and portraits in 19th century. I suppose his talent was not recognized in his time and he had to dedicate himself to a more commercial painting as mentioned.
This lonely painting is for me the most interesting inside his production, maybe because it´s unique. In this painting, Horace Vernet approxmates to Romanticism and in some way it is an antecedent of Symbolism. To paint the Death as he does is not frequent in the middle of 19th century, most of all because he breaks the norm -the Death is usually a skeleton with a scythe- representing the Death as a black angel. The angel has come down to earth and arrives directly to the bed of the dying girl and holds her to drive to death. He is completely black with wings and hidden face, a very personal interpretation of what the death is.
It´s obvious the piety side of this painting: there is a man down in his knees praying to God. It´s the prayer of the man to regret all the sins of the dying girl, in order to allow her going into Heaven. On the right side of the painting there are two elements: an open book which possibly is the Bible and an icon which represents either Virgin Mary or a female saint.
It´s also obvious that it´s unfair the young maiden is dying: an illness has driven her to death. She is represented as a young blond pale face girl wearing a white nightdress, sign of purity. One of her hands points up, it´s like she is in peace and knows she is going up, right to Heaven, while a celestial ray lays over her. She also has a necklace with a golden cross, another sign of Christianity. The man should be the lover of the maiden, so the image represents a tragedy.
Apart of the meaning of the painting, I want to emphasize the composition and the colours. The composition is lead by the body of the maiden, with a beautiful face, near to Pre-Raphaelite female representations. The blonde hair, pale face and white nightdress contrast with the black angel, the deep blue walls of the room and the ocher colors of the bed, furnishing and man wear. Everything is located around her and mean the injustice of the death of a pure maiden.
The painting, dated in France in 1851, today stays at Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia. I haven´t ever watched the painting physically, but I´m sure that contemplating this masterpiece directly must be extremely pleasant. Don´t forget to visit this masterpiece if you are near this city.