What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Provoking Reading of David’s Philosophical & Political Painting

When we think of polit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da, we do not typ­i­cal­ly think of French Neo­clas­si­cal painter Jacques-Louis David. There’s some­thing debased about the term—it stinks of insin­cer­i­ty, stagi­ness, emo­tion­al manip­u­la­tion, qual­i­ties that can­not pos­si­bly belong to great art. But let us put aside this prej­u­dice and con­sid­er David’s 1787 The Death of Socrates. Cre­at­ed two years before the start of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the paint­ing “gave expres­sion to the prin­ci­ple of resist­ing unjust author­i­ty,” and—like its source, Plato’s Phae­do—it makes a mar­tyr of its hero, who is the soul of rea­son and a thorn in the side of dog­ma and tra­di­tion.

Nonethe­less, as Evan Puschak, the Nerd­writer, shows us in the short video above, The Death of Socrates sit­u­ates itself firm­ly with­in the tra­di­tions of Euro­pean art, draw­ing heav­i­ly on clas­si­cal sculp­tures and friezes as well as the great­est works of the Renais­sance. There are echoes of da Vinci’s Last Sup­per in the num­ber of fig­ures and their place­ment, and a dis­tinct ref­er­ence of Raphael’s School of Athens in Socrates’ upward-point­ing fin­ger, which belongs to Pla­to in the ear­li­er paint­ing. Here, David has Pla­to, already an old man, seat­ed at the foot of the bed, the scene arranged behind him as if “explod­ing from the back of his head.”

Socrates, says Puschak, “has been dis­cussing at length the immor­tal­i­ty of the soul, and he doesn’t even seem to care that he’s about to take the imple­ment of his death in hand. On the con­trary, Socrates is defi­ant… David ide­al­izes him… he would have been 70 at the time and some­what less mus­cu­lar and beau­ti­ful than paint­ed here.” He is a “sym­bol of strength over pas­sion, of sto­ic com­mit­ment to an abstract ide­al,” a theme David artic­u­lat­ed with much less sub­tle­ty in an ear­li­er paint­ing, The Oath of the Hor­atii, with its Roman salutes and bun­dled swords—a “severe, moral­is­tic can­vas,” with which the artist “effec­tive­ly invent­ed the Neo­clas­si­cal style.”

In The Death of Socrates, David refines his moral­is­tic ten­den­cies, and Puschak ties the com­po­si­tion loose­ly to a sense of prophe­cy about the com­ing Ter­ror after the storm­ing of the Bastille. The Nerd­writer sum­ma­tion of the painting’s angles and influ­ences does help us see it anew. But Puschak’s vague his­tori­ciz­ing doesn’t quite do the artist jus­tice, fail­ing to men­tion David’s direct part in the wave of bloody exe­cu­tions under Robe­spierre.

David was an active sup­port­er of the Rev­o­lu­tion and designed “uni­forms, ban­ners, tri­umphal arch­es, and inspi­ra­tional props for the Jacobin Club’s pro­pa­gan­da,” notes a Boston Col­lege account. He was also “elect­ed a Deputy form the city of Paris, and vot­ed for the exe­cu­tion of Louis XVI.” His­to­ri­ans have iden­ti­fied over “300 vic­tims for whom David signed exe­cu­tion orders.” The sever­i­ty of his ear­li­er clas­si­cal scenes comes into greater focus in The Death of Socrates around the cen­tral fig­ure, a great man of his­to­ry, one whose hero­ic feats and trag­ic sac­ri­fices dri­ve the course of all events worth men­tion­ing.

Indeed, we can see David’s work as a visu­al pre­cur­sor to philoso­pher and his­to­ri­an Thomas Carlyle’s the­o­ries of “the hero­ic in his­to­ry.” (Car­lyle also hap­pened to write the 19th century’s defin­i­tive his­to­ry of the French Rev­o­lu­tion.) In 1793, David took his visu­al great man the­o­ry and Neo­clas­si­cal style and applied them for the first time to a con­tem­po­rary event, the mur­der of his friend Jean-Paul Marat, Swiss Jacobin jour­nal­ist, by the Girondist Char­lotte Cor­day. (Learn more in the Khan Acad­e­my video above.) This is one of three can­vas­es David made of “mar­tyrs of the Revolution”—the oth­er two are lost to his­to­ry. And it is here that we can see the evo­lu­tion of his polit­i­cal paint­ing from clas­si­cal alle­go­ry to con­tem­po­rary pro­pa­gan­da, in a can­vas wide­ly hailed, along with The Death of Socrates, as one of the great­est Euro­pean paint­ings of the age.

We can look to David for both for­mal mas­tery and didac­tic intent. But we should not look to him for polit­i­cal con­stan­cy. He was no John Mil­ton—the poet of the Eng­lish Rev­o­lu­tion who was still devot­ed to the cause even after the restora­tion of the monarch. David, on the oth­er hand, “could eas­i­ly be denounced as a bril­liant cyn­ic,” writes Michael Glover at The Inde­pen­dent. Once Napoleon came to pow­er and began his rapid ascen­sion to the self-appoint­ed role of Emper­or, David quick­ly became court painter, and cre­at­ed the two most famous por­traits of the ruler.

We’re quite famil­iar with The Emper­or Napoleon in His Study at the Tui­leries, in which the sub­ject stands in an awk­ward pose, his hand thrust into his waist­coat. And sure­ly know Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, above. Here, the fin­ger point­ing upward takes on an entire­ly new res­o­nance than it has in The Death of Socrates. It is the ges­ture not of a man nobly pre­pared to leave the world behind, but of one who plans to con­quer and sub­due it under his absolute rule.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Restor­ing a 400-Year-Old Paint­ing: A Five-Minute Primer

Gus­tav Klimt’s Haunt­ing Paint­ings Get Re-Cre­at­ed in Pho­tographs, Fea­tur­ing Live Mod­els, Ornate Props & Real Gold

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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