Famous paintings by Jacques Louis David (1748 – 1825) epitomize the loftiest aspirations of famous artwork… and their least savory uses as political propaganda.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in three art paintings by Jacques Louis David: Death of Socrates, Death of Marat, and Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

First some background on this famous painter.

He came of age during the era of King Louis XV and the Rococco style. Although Jacques-Louis David initially emulated the style of his distant relative, Francois Boucher, David’s teacher, Joseph-Marie Vien, encouraged him to study classical art instead.

Like many enticed by the Enlightenment’s call for individuality, David rejected the “artificial taste” of the Rococo style and developed what came to be known as the Neoclassical style.

Jacques-Louis David, Self Portrait. Oil on canvas, 1794. Approximately 31″ x 25″. Louvre.

David’s art paintings remains an unparalleled visual chronicle of the French Revolution, including the reign and fall of Napoleon I.  Despite his painting career, he was an active revolutionary who belonged to the Jacobins and voted for the execution of Louis XVI.

These “egalitarian democrats”, under the leadership of Robespierre, dominated the Assembly during the Reign of Terror (1793-94), when 40,000 people were executed for allegedly resisting the Revolution. It is in this political climate – and David’s intimacy with it – that he created three of his most famous paintings.

Death of Socrates

Here, David glorifies the individual as a self-sacrificing hero committed to country and family, making Death of Socrates a Neoclassical masterpiece and manifesto.

Death of Socrates. Oil on canvas, 1787.  4′ 3″ x 6′ 5 1/4.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The hero, Socrates, was accused by the Athenian government of corruptly educating its youth. As recounted by Plato in “The Apology”, Socrates was given the choice between permanent exile or death by forced drinking of poisonous hemlock.

True to his principles, Socrates opted for death.

In Death of Socrates, he is passionately discusses the soul’s immortality with his mourning disciples, teaching them to his final end. Socrates points with his left hand, perhaps suggesting a higher truth but unquestioningly referencing the portrayal of Plato in Raphael’s School of Athens.

 Raphael. School of Athens (Philosophy). Fresco, 1509-1511. Approximately 19′ x 27′.  Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, Rome.

Death of Marat 

David painted Death of Marat in 1793, the year in which Louis XVI (a former patron) and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded by guillotine.

This famous artwork – in my book, the finest portrayal of political martyrdom in the history of painting – is loaded with history and symbolism.

Marat suffered from a skin ailment which was soothed only by soaking in the bathtub.

It was here that Charlotte Corday, a supporter of the conservative Girondin group, found Marat and stabbed him to death.  The kitchen knife she used is beside the tub in an ironic contrast with Marat’s quill, juxtaposing violence with the power of the pen. Marat grasps the letter of introduction by which Corday gained access to him.

The shabby wooden crate, intimating Marat’s simple lifestyle, bears a personal and political message from David to the fallen hero: the painting is dedicated “A Marat, David” (To Marat, from David) and is dated “L’An Deux” (The Year Two, or the second year of the French Revolution).

The composition of Death of Marat is one from classical art: Marat’s pose is evocative of devotional paintings of a dead Christ.   There’s no doubt about David’s feelings for Marat himself.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

Although his personal, artistic and political fortunes were under siege during the Revolution, Jacques Louis David became allied with Napoleon Bonaparte.  Appointed as the court painter, David used his considerable talents to promote Napoleon’s new regime, portraying him as a hero in artwork like Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

Here, Napoleon is portrayed in the tradition of grand Roman equestrian portraiture.

Attired in full military regalia, Napoleon points to the summit of the mountain (or perhaps to Socrates’ higher power).  David links Napoleon to some of history’s most exalted rulers by the inscriptions “KAROLUS MAGNUS”, or Charlemagne, and “ANNIBAL” engraved in stone in the left foreground under “BONAPARTE”.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Oil on canvas, 1800.  8′ x 7′ 7″.  Musee National du Chateau de Versailles. 

Less anyone doubt the intended propagandistic nature of this famous painting… history records that Napoleon crossed the Alps by mule!

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