While some artists sought immortality by painting idyllically beautiful images that sing of the beauty of the world, some artists felt a greater obligation to capture the world as it was, flaws and all. These artists often became the conscience for humanity, reminding people that the beauty of life lay in the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Jacques-Louis David was one of these artists that captured the world as it was, and through his art, desired to change it. The message behind his art was never far from his mind and illuminated when he said: “In the arts the way in which an idea is rendered and the manner in which it is expressed, is much more important than the idea itself. To give a body and a perfect form to ones thought, this and only this is to be an artist.” David spent the majority of his artistic life seeing that his thoughts found the perfect body and form, becoming the rejection of aristocratic frivolity and champion of human progress, in a dramatic way that triumphantly leaps off the canvas and into the viewer’s psyche, especially in works like The Death of Socrates.
A reformer by nature and a classical enthusiast by nurture, David painted pictures whose austerity was a conscious reaction to the rococo extravagances. David never thought of a picture as a mere painting. It had to have a manifesto-like message pointing to political and social action. It was inevitable that the high moral purpose of the French Revolution would be reflected in his art (Fleming 496). As the French Revolution approached, Greek and Roman civic virtues were extolled as salutary antidotes to the degeneracy of the Old Regime, and The Death of Socrates gave clear expression to the moral and philosophical principles of David’s time.
Painted with oil on canvas, with its stoic theme, The Death of Socrates is perhaps David’s most perfect neoclassical statement; in The Death of Socrates, David takes a scene from Plato’s Phaedo and uses artistic liberty to dramatize the event. Both David’s neoclassical painting and Plato’s literary work depicts the closing moments of the life of Socrates, after the elderly philosopher was accused by the Athenian government of impiety and corrupting the young through his teachings, which aroused skepticism and impiety in his students; he was offered the choice of renouncing his beliefs or being sentenced to death for treason. David shows Socrates calmly discoursing on the immortality of the soul with his grief-stricken disciples, creating an iconographical image that quickly became a symbol of republican virtue and a manifesto of the neoclassical style.
Perhaps no civilization represented the strength of republican virtues as Rome, and its influence in the work of David is undeniable. According to Phillippe Bordes: “During his first Roman sojourn, David had been extremely receptive to the dramatic contrasts he saw in the art of Caravaggio and his followers, especially as a means by which human forms might be placed in forceful relief” (Bordes 487). David’s affinity for ancient and contemporary Rome can be seen not only in the figures, but everywhere in the painting. The scene takes place in a chamber that has Roman arches on the windows and an arch in the hallway. There is also a Roman style lamp found behind Socrates, and though the light in the painting comes from elsewhere.
The origin of the primary source of light that shines on Socrates and his disciples is unknown. The distribution of light and dark accents aid in distinguishing the significance and suggested “divinity” of Socrates. In David’s painting, the light that shines on Socrates is brighter than all of the other light sources, helping to emphasize Socrates’ “godliness,” as he calmly sits upright with his finger extended in the air, exuding authority, responsibility, and intellect. Socrates movements and gesture demonstrates how he sacrifices himself, like a Greek god would, rather than betray his principles. David painted Socrates pointing his finger upward and higher than anyone in this painting to symbolize that his philosophical teachings have no end. Surrounding him are his students, most of them emotionally distraught. Nevertheless, Socrates shows a stoic acceptance of his fate, and defiance to sacrifice his ideals.
In addition to the lighting contrast and heroic gestures, the “godliness” of Socrates is also reflected in the detail David uses in the philosopher’s form. Socrates is seen as a father like figure with great amount of wisdom because a beard is painted on his face. David summed up all of Socrates’ beliefs by painting physical emotions on Socrates. What is visually striking about The Death of Socrates—what is visually at its center—is the dynamic interaction of Socrates’ body with the prison guard’s body. What catches the eye are the muscles of Socrates’ perfectly-chiseled chest, following an angle formed by his outstretched right leg; the scene momentarily stops in the gap between Socrates’ right hand, the red hemlock cup and Socrates’ knee, but then proceeds to the brightly-lit back and leg of the prison guard, the red of his robe accentuating the red of the hemlock cup. The viewer can see a few papyrus scrolls on the ground under the seat of the elder student Plato, reminding that this is a scene of philosophical import; and while Socrates’ companions are crying, he is discoursing to them, as one of them, perhaps Crito, is listening to him with rapt attention (Khawaja 10). The shackles in the floor also help illustrate a sense of freedom, however, this freedom is of his spirit being freed from this material world. This painting is not only projecting a martyrdom but it is also a clarion call to the viewer for nobility and self-control even in the face of death. David’s revolutionary ideals held republican virtue and integrity in the highest possible regard. His emphasis on reason and philosophy found form in the triumphant and defiant Socrates. And his ideas on beauty and perfection were also captured for posterity in every passionate brushstroke.
Bordes, Philippe. “Jacques-Louis David’s Anglophilia on the Eve of the French Revolution.”
Burlington Magazine. 134:1073 (1992): 482-490.
David, Jacques-Louis. The Death of Socrates. 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Fleming, William. Arts & Ideas. Ninth Ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.
Khawaja, Irfan. “Image, Deception, and Injustice: The Platonic Critique of Painting.” Diss.
College of New Jersey, 2005: 1-17.