Quarantine: Artists and Writers on Isolation

By Bill Armstrong | January 19, 2021

On March 22nd, 2020, the day of the shutdown, I left my home in New York City and drove with my daughter to my sister’s house in rural Massachusetts. It was a very tense time, and it seemed like leaving New York while we still could was a good idea. We basically quarantined there for a month. My daughter was able to attend her school on Zoom, and I, well, didn’t have a lot to do except walk in the nearby woods. A few days into it, I read an article in the New York Times about how John Keats quarantined in the Bay of Naples, then a friend mentioned Boccaccio during a phone call and a project was born. My research uncovered such a richness of quotes by writers and artists that 31 portraits in 31 days became my goal. The hope is that by conjuring ghosts from the past, we can learn, for history certainly repeats itself, and that the experience and wisdom of others can help us survive the current pandemic.




John Keats


Quarantined from typhus on a boat in the bay of Naples, Keats wrote that he “traveled in the realm of gold,” referring to the gilt-edged color of books. Maybe it’s a good time to dust off the old volumes on the bookshelf, gilt or not.

Giovanni Boccaccio


“A deadly pestilence, which several years earlier had originated in the Orient…where it destroyed countless lives, scarcely resting in one place before it moved to the next, and turning westward, its strength grew monstrously.”
—The Decameron

Boccaccio’s Decameron is a series of stories about a group of friends who quarantined in a villa outside of Florence to escape the Black Death.

Frida Kahlo



“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

After a serious bus accident, Kahlo, bedridden, lonely, and isolated for months, took up painting.


William Shakespeare



“And finding him, the searchers of the town
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.
So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed.”

Romeo and Juliet

So said Friar John when the quarantine prevented him from delivering the letter to Romeo saying Juliet’s death was faked. The result was catastrophic.



Mary Shelley


In Mary Shelley’s The Lost Man, when a pandemic spreads across the world, Shelley’s protagonist returns home to isolation “as the storm-driven bird does [to] the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquility.”

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Copyright © 2021 Bill Armstrong
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  1. Ellen Bennett on January 25, 2021 at 8:38 pm

    Haunting, real. Thank you.

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