Jacques-Louis David studied painting in Rome where he was able to absorb the classical sprit of Ancient Rome (Fleming, 1995, p. 496). He was influenced by Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot, and from them, he developed the idea that paintings should have a message that points to political and/or social action (Fleming, 1995, p. 496). A member of the bourgeoisie, David was personally involved in many Revolutionary events: he organized a festival of the people (July 14, 1790), designed propaganda materials for the Jacobins, voted in support of Louis XVI’s execution, and signed execution orders for over 300 people (Boston College, 2006).
David, then, was uniquely positioned to combine ancient values, Enlightenment thought, and revolutionary principles in his paintings. The interest in classical values in the late 18th century arose from two sources: the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii and the rise in popularity of revolutionary ideals. In particular, the Roman Republic was seen to embody a spirit of courage, freedom, and opposition to autocracy that resonated with 18th century revolutionaries in France and the United States (Anonymous, n.
d. ) For artists, these neo-classical ideas came in the guise of searching for new subject-matter. Previously, most artists painted religious, mythological, or allegorical scenes (Anonymous, n. d. ). In terms of subject matter, David’s “The Death of Marat” is neo-classical in the sense that scene is neither religious, nor mythological, nor allegorical in nature. In fact, the subject is a contemporaneous figure – Jean-Paul Marat.
The choice of Marat confirms to the revolutionary ideals associated with neo-classicism in that Marat was a prominent leader of the French Revolution who was killed by Charlotte Corday, a member of the opposition (Anonymous, n. d. ). David’s sympathies clearly lie with the Revolution, as he portrayed Marat as a martyr (Anonymous, n. d. ). Marat’s position in the bath tub, surrounded by materials needed for work (paper, quill, ink) requires some explanation. As he suffered from a skin disease, Marat spent many hours working in his bath (Boston College, 2006).
David painted the painting shortly after Marat’s murder on July 13, 1793. Originally asked by the Convention to paint Marat’s portrait at the time of his death, David chose to present an idealized portrait of the man, rather than an authentic depiction of the rapidly decomposing body (Boston College, 2006). David was overcome with emotion upon this request from the Convention, as Marat had been his close friend and ally (Annenberg, n. d. ). This painting functions almost like a detective novel: all of the clues needed to solve the case are present in the picture.
Marat’s wounds figure prominently, there is a bloody knife on the floor, and the paper in Marat’s left hand is a letter his murderer gave to him just before she stabbed him (Annenberg, n. d. ). Though I did not know the background behind the portrait, I was immediately drawn to this painting because of the serene, yet pained, look on the subject’s face. I was intrigued by the fact that the subject appears at first glance to be taking a rest from his work. It is only when I noticed the red color that I realized that the subject was bleeding.
The red blotches on the paper in the subject’s left hand seem to indicate that he placed this hand over his wounds before retaking his paper. This color sharply contrasts with the white bath cloths. The knife seems to be an afterthought, tossed aside by the murderer. Without knowing the particulars behind the painting, the viewer is left with many unanswered questions. Who is this Marat that is mentioned on the table by the bath and whose name appears on the sheet of paper in the subject’s left hand? In short, this painting sparked my curiosity to learn more about the incredible story behind the painting.
Image: ? References Annenberg Media (n. d. ). Art of the Western World: An Age of Reason, An Age of Passion. Retrieved on May 11, 2010 from http://www. learner. org/vod/vod_window. html? pid=233. Anonymous (n. d. ). Lecture: Enlightenment and the Romantic Era. Retrieved on May 11, 2010 from http://www. stockton. edu/~fergusoc/romantic/romantic. htm Boston College (2006). Jacques-Louis David: The Death of Marat. Retrieved May 11, 2010 from http://www. bc. edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/art/neocl_dav_marat. html Fleming, W. (1995). Arts & Ideas. Ninth edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
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