Painting of the Day

25 Jan


Death of Socrates. by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Oil on canvas, 1787. Currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC (but not on view).

Notes from

Accused by the Athenian government of denying the gods and corrupting the young through his teachings, Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) was offered the choice of renouncing his beliefs or dying by drinking a cup of hemlock. David shows him prepared to die and discoursing on the immortality of the soul with his grief-stricken disciples.

Painted in 1787 the picture, with its stoic theme, is perhaps David’s most perfect Neoclassical statement. The printmaker and publisher John Boydell wrote to Sir Joshua Reynolds that it was “the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanze of Raphael.”

The great history painter and portraitist Jacques Louis David was the pupil of Joseph Marie Vien (1716–1809) and then in 1766 entered the school of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Having won the Prix de Rome in 1774, he traveled to Italy with Vien, an early exponent of neoclassicism and the newly appointed director of the French Academy there. In the Italian capital, David followed a traditional course, drawing from the antique, from models, and from nature, and studying contemporary and earlier painting. He made innumerable studies that attest to his passionate interest in antiquity and in the sculptural style of painting espoused in the seventeenth century by the Romanist Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), whose successor he became.

David returned to Paris in 1780 and the next year was received as a candidate member of the Académie, presenting Belisarius Begging Alms (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille), a history painting praised for its nobility of spirit. His reception piece, submitted in 1783, was the starkly heroic Grieving Andromache (École Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-Arts, Paris). Moralizing themes were immensely popular in the tumultuous years preceding the French revolution and many painters essayed The Death of Socrates, but none with the success of David. From its first exhibition at the Salon of 1787, the canvas has been admired for the clarity and force of its composition and the purity of its sentiment.

In 399 B.C., having been accused by the Athenian government of impiety and of corrupting young people with his teachings, the philosopher Socrates was tried, found guilty, and offered the choice of renouncing his beliefs or drinking the cup of hemlock. He died willingly for the principles he held dear. Here he gestures toward the cup, points toward the heavens, and discourses on the immortality of the soul. The picture, with its stoic theme, has been described as David’s most perfect neoclassical statement.

The artist consulted Plato’s “Phaedo” and a variety of sources including Diderot’s treatise on dramatic poetry and works by the poet André Chenier. The pose of Plato, the figure seated in profile at the foot of the bed (who was not actually present at the scene), was reportedly inspired by the English novelist Richardson. The printmaker and publisher John Boydell, writing to Sir Joshua Reynolds, called The Death of Socrates “the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanze of Raphael,” further observing that the painting “would have done honour to Athens at the time of Pericles.”

Additional (really interesting) notes from Boston College’s Art History department website:

At the height of his youthful popularity and enthusiasm, part of a close circle of friends (including Chernier, Lafayette and Lavoisier) who were purshing for radical political reform, David painted this unusual historical picture in 1787. Commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, leaders in the call for a free market system and more public discussion, this picture depicts the closing moments of the life of Socrates. Condemned to death or exile by the Athenian government for his teaching methods which aroused scepticism and impiety in his students, Socrates heroicly rejected exile and accepted death from hemlock.

For months, David and his friends debated and discussed the importance of this picture. It was to be another father figure (like the Horatii and Brutus), unjustly condemned but who sacrifices himself for an abstract principle. By contrasting the movements of the energetic but firmly controlled Socrates, and his swooning disciples, through the distribution of light and dark accents, David transforms what might have been only a fashionable picture of martyrdom to a clarion call for nobility and self-control even in the face of death.

Here the philosopher continues to speak even while reaching for the cup, demonstrating his indifference to death and his unyielding commitment to his ideals. Most of his disciplines and slaves swirl around him in grief, betraying the weakness of emotionalism. His wife is seen only in the distance leaving the prison. Only Plato, at the foot of the bed and Crito grasping his master’s leg, seem in control of themselves.

For contemporaries the scene could only call up memories of the recently abandoned attempt at reform, the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, and the large number of political prisoners in the king’s jails or in exile. David certainly intended this scene as a rebuke to cringing souls. On the eve of the Revolution, this picture served as a trumpet call to duty, and resistance to unjust authority. Thomas Jefferson was present at its unveiling, and admired it immensly. Sir Joshua Reynolds compared the Socrates with Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Raphael’s Stanze, and after ten visits to the Salon described it as `in every sense perfect’.

My comments:

In my Political Theory course, on the first day the professor showed us this painting when introducing us to Socrates, who believed in the non-consequencialist theory of justice as it applies to individuals. This means that humans possess a sense of morality that is independent of the consequences or end results that might occur based on choices made according to that morality. For example, when asked why one shouldn’t kill an innocent person, the non-consequentialist would say that he himself wouldn’t kill someone because “it’s just wrong.” Conversely, the consequentialist would say that he wouldn’t kill someone because it would contribute to the deterioration of society, or he would get in trouble, etc.

Even though I tend to not really like Classical or Neoclassical painting, something about this one by David really speaks to me. It’s interesting how the light shines most brightly on Socrates, and he is almost pure white, almost like a martyr or Christ figure.

There’s lots of patterns in the painting: there’s a pattern in the position of the figures’ bodies and a pattern in the curve of their arms, creating what looks like a wave that’s surging toward the left side of the canvas.

One thing that I find interesting about my experience of the painting and about which I’m not sure if it was intentional on the part of the artist is that the pointing of Socrates’ finger towards the top of the canvas continues to make my eye go towards the top of the canvas. This effect is so strong that I actually scroll up on the webpage on my computer where the image is because I keep expecting to see something higher up on the canvas, even though the whole canvas is within my viewing frame on the webpage. What puzzles me about this is that there is nothing at the top of the canvas except the stone wall and the light that is shining from a source outside of the painting; why, then, would David want to lead our eyes that way?

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