Behind every great piece of artwork lies a story. Each story told by art is defined by the era in which it was created. For one to truly comprehend what message an artwork conveys, one must be familiar with the historical context from which it was taken. One great example would be “Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David. The meaning of the painting can only be derived from an understanding of the 18th century, an era where the Enlightenment occurred and Neoclassicism flourished. The painting “Death of Socrates” was created during the 18th century. Despite this, the artwork depicted personalities from ancient philosophy.
One would be prompted to ask, “Why did the artist choose to paint figures from antiquity in an 18th century art piece? The answer lies in the historical period in which the artist was included. In 18th century, Europe was immersed in an era known as the Age of Reason or Enlightenment. During this time, reason prevailed in all aspects of human life. The dominance of reason altered the political and social landscape, as people began to challenge traditional institutions and beliefs. The Enlightenment was very influential in France, which is why it is no surprise that Jacques-Louis David had applied Enlightenment ideals in his paintings.
It must be noted that the late 18th century was also known for the “renewed interest in classical antiquity” (Gardner, Kleiner and Mamiya 646). The revival of Greek and Roman culture was most apparent in Neoclassicism, a movement which borrowed the basic elements of classical art. Neoclassicism became evident in architecture, painting and sculpture; all these disciplines integrated the styles and themes of the ancient world. David was part of the Neoclassicist movement and became one of its most prominent painters. This was the reason he chose Socrates as his subject.
Hence, David’s style and technique as an artist was shaped by the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism. The painting describes the last moments of Socrates (“Jacques-Louis David”). The philosopher is seated upright on a bed in the middle of the painting, surrounded by his companions. His left hand points in an upward direction, which is an indication of the ancient Greek belief in the transmigration of souls. According to this belief, the soul lives forever. This is the reason why Socrates is seemingly unconcerned with his impending demise and had freely accepted his fate. Meanwhile, his right hand reaches for the hemlock.
The hemlock was placed in the middle because death is the central theme of the painting. One would wonder why David chose to depict Socrates with the physique of a young man when the philosopher was in his 70s. It must be noted that “Death of Socrates” is a Neoclassical piece, which means that David followed the style of ancient Greek art. Ancient Greek art is known for its ideal, perfect depiction of human beings. Compared to Socrates, the people who surrounded Socrates display a completely different attitude. The companions of Socrates are depicted as figures overwhelmed with anguish due to the philosopher’s impending death.
The people on the right side of the painting are obviously distressed by death. They are depicted as excessively emotional, which rendered them remarkably distinct from Socrates. Only three figures in the painting seemed more in control of their emotions. The wife of Socrates, who is found in the left side of the painting, is leaving the prison with an indifferent facial expression. Crito is seated on a stool on the foot of Socrates’ bed, with his head down. Meanwhile, Plato has a firm grip on the leg of Socrates. Such action implies that Plato did not want his master to surrender to death.
In this painting, the philosopher’s attitude and way of thinking becomes apparent due to the different reactions towards death as shown by the figures. While others mourn his last living moments, Socrates’ remain indifferent and unaffected. He accepts his death while keeping his beliefs intact. The philosopher has a more accepting perspective of death; instead of fearing death, he embraces it. David meant for the painting to be a reaction towards the political situation of France during that time. As a part of the French Enlightenment, he and his friends demanded change in the leadership of the monarchy.
The painting was made prior to the French Revolution and the painter wanted his work to serve as an inspiration to those who would be involved. He sought to tell the French people about their duty to the nation. He wanted to convey the message that they must sacrifice for the good of the people and fight against unfair leadership. This was the reason why he chose Socrates as his subject. The Enlightenment called for freedom of thought. The era was about the transformation of society towards the truth. Socrates was a man who defended freedom of thought.
However, he was killed by the Athenian government who wanted to diminish the doubt that his beliefs aroused. The death of Socrates was the death of truth. Through the painting, David criticized the French monarchy for suppressing the truth. Like Socrates who chose to defy the government and stay true to his beliefs, David wanted the French people to fight against unjust leadership and defend freedom of thought. The play of light and darkness in “Death of Socrates” helped showcase the message David wanted to express. For instance, the brightest part of the painting is in the middle, where Socrates was situated.
Meanwhile, the darkest areas of the painting are on the sides. In the left side, there is the dark hallway as well as the staircase through which the wife of Socrates leaves the scene. The upper right hand side of the painting, the area which is found above the mourning people, is also rather dark. There is a reason behind such distribution in the painting. David envisioned Socrates to be a role model; the latter proved to be formidable figure that was not swayed by the coming of death. He was a man who willingly gave up his life and refuses to deny his ideals. This was the reason why the light was fixed upon him.
Those who are situated the dark areas are the people David wanted to change. The darkness touches upon the weeping companions of Socrates, those people who surrender to grief when confronted with death. The wife of Socrates is depicted as fleeing from the scene, as if she cannot bear to deal with the philosopher’s demise. David wanted virtue and sacrifice from the people who are confronted with a revolution and those in the dark areas in the painting represent those who lack these notions. The movement of the figures is also instrumental in demonstrating the meaning of the painting.
The viewer can clearly see the contrast between the stance of the philosopher and the stance of the people around him. On one hand, Socrates is in a straight sitting position; the painting makes him appear full of life and energy. It is also evident that he possesses self-control at that moment. On the other hand, the figures who surround him reveal lifeless body language. The philosopher’s companions are shown to be stooping, with their heads dropped. The posture of the figures alone highlights the difference between Socrates and his companions.
The difference in posture contributes to the meaning of the painting because it asserts the position of Socrates as the one to emulate in the time of the French Revolution. David wanted the French people to be like Socrates, a man who stood by what he believed in and was not afraid of the consequences. All artworks have a story to share. The story behind an artwork can be best understood when one is familiar with the historical era from which it was made. In the case of “Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David, one must know about the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism in the 18th century to know what the artist wanted to convey.
David was an artist who was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism, so the only way to truly understand his work is to look through history.
Works Cited Gardner, Helen, Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Florence, Kentucky: Cengage Learning, 2005. “Jacques-Louis David: The Death of Socrates. ” Boston College Web Site. 27 Nov. 2006. 31 March 2009 <http://www. bc. edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/art/neocl_dav_soc. html>.