Artist who painted historical and biblical subjects on a heroic scale that was rare in the Germany of his time but who is best remembered for his vitriolic series of woodcuts The Dance of Death.
Although a conservative, he used middle-class raillery against the Revolution of 1848 in woodcuts anticipating the often leftist vehemence of 20th-century German Expressionism.
Precocious in his arte Rethel entered the Düsseldorf Academy when he was 13 and proceeded in 1836 to Frankfurt am Main where he was chosen to decorate the walls of the venerable Römer Hall. His other Frankfurt work included Daniel, Justitia and portraits of three emperors.
In 1841 he was prizewinner in a contest to decorate the Kaisersaal at Aachen with frescoes on the career of Charlemagne, a project that he was never to complete.
While in Rome in 1844 he painted his Hannibal Crossing the Alps cycle and then spent a few years in Dresden.
Symptoms of mental disorder appeared during a second visit to Rome.
He died in a Dússeldorf asylum.
Boyishly romantic in such large-scale works as Entry of Charlemagne into Pavia, he was the opposite in his sardonic, inventive Dance of Death.
The most famous of his series Death as Conqueror over the Barricades (1848) shows a skeleton on horseback leading revolutionists past corpses and mourners.
In its precision of line and mood it is a reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer´s drawings.