The title of this painting is taken from the final book of the Bible, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, which has often been interpreted as a symbolic description of warfare: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And Power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to kill with the sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8).
In this horrifying chronicle of the destruction of humankind, the rugged irregular forms, the dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and the dynamism of the turbulent movement combine with the distorted faces and pitiful gestures of the dead and dying to convey a sense of terror. The violent furor exhibits a destructive dynamism that makes this one of the most awesome depictions of the methods by which a world may be annihilated.
In 1796, the year this work was painted, England was at war with revolutionary France, and West’s picture may have been intended to comment on what was happening, or was expected to happen, in the contemporary world.