Jacques Louis David’s, Death of Socrates, embodies both the neoclassical movement and the ideals of the French Revolution. Socrates, a harsh critic of the Athenian government was sentenced to death, a death Socrates used to model stoic strength to his students.
Jacques Louis David is a French Neoclassical painter known for his precise draughtsman and his ability to distill a story down to it’s essential elements. Born in 1748, David received a rigorous art education in the Academy system in Paris, and then, winning the Prix De Rome, he continued his studies in Rome for several years. His time in Rome shaped his art profoundly. Upon his return to Paris he was accepted into the Royal Academy, given lodgings and workshop space in the Louvre, and offered commissions by courtiers. He appeared to be following the proven avenues to success within the French art world of the time.
However, the Enlightenment also shaped David, and ignited his imagination with the noble ideals of a republic. After his return from Rome his works would extoll these ideals: the natural rights of man, reason over religion, and the rejection of the divine rights of kings. While his art education, living accommodations and many commissions were funded by the Crown, his paintings began to be understood by many as criticism of the established order. Subtle at first, but quickly seen as problematic by the Academy, and inspiring to the reformers, the message of his art would soon capture a nation and he would become the artist of the Revolution.
One of the most politically active artists in history, David would actively participate in the French Revolution, holding positions in the new government, and signing the death warrant of King Louis XVI. David participated in the Great Terror, his signature is on at least 300 execution orders, and he was fast friends with the radical leaders, Robespierre and Marat. Eventually, as the political tides turned he would be imprisoned, and then, the ultimate survivor, become the court painter for Napoleon.
His is a fascinating life, but today we are focused on just one painting, a pivotal one for him, that was shown in the year leading up to the Revolution and exemplifies the shift that both art and the nation were making.
I’m going to oversimplify both art and history to draw a few broad comparisons.
The art most often associated with the French Court was Rococo, a style that was highly ornamental and extravagant and often focused on illicit romantic interludes and nobility pursuing their leisurely pastimes. Rococo is fanciful with sensuous curving lines, pastel colors and dainty figures, and initially became popular among the nobility because it provided some relief from the formality of court life. Over time the excesses of the court and Rococo became linked.
The argument goes that Rococo personified a society with no moral compass, a society made vice attractive and wasted it’s wealth on indulging the upper classes every whim.
Now Rococo was much more than that, but when placed side by side with a work like The Death of Socrates, it is easy to see how David’s art appealed. The reformers were calling for a return to the values of the Roman Republic. The stories of ancient Rome are filled with noble men who were ruled by reason rather than their baser instincts. Men who behaved honorably, placing the good of Rome above the appetites of it’s rulers.
Obviously, this view of Roman history is idealized and ignores a great deal, but it’s true there were compelling stories of noble sacrifice. These stories demanded a new style of art, a style whose aesthetics’ emphasized austerity, stoicism, and nobility, nobility of character, rather than of birth. And David was just the artist to deliver this new style.
The Neoclassical movement did not begin with David, however he is credited with bringing it to the forefront of French art. His style of bold, strong lines, distilled images, and emotional restraint were striking and quite popular with the public who came to view his works at the Paris Salon.
The Enlightenment thinker, Denis Diderot argued that the aim of art should be to make virtue attractive and vice odious. David delivered on that aim when he painted The Death of Socrates.
To understand this work we first need to be familiar with Socrates. Socrates was a Greek philosopher who pioneered Western Philosophy. He wandered Athens with a group of followers dialoguing about life, the soul, and Athens. It was the discussions about Athens that got him into trouble. Socrates was deeply critical of the Athenian government and was not quiet about his opinions.
Socrates didn’t write any great books laying out his philosophical theories, instead what we know of him comes from the pen of a student, Plato. Through Plato’s writings Socrates lives on. For the painting we are looking at today, the important book is Plato’s Phaedo, where he recorded Socrates dialogues on the immortality of the soul.
In Phaedo, Plato tells us about Socrates death and that is where David got the details for this painting. Socrates was sentenced to death by an Athenian Court for “impiety and corrupting the youth”. He had been given the option of exile, but Socrates chose death. The reasoning given was that this would be his final lesson to his students, that a philosopher need not be frightened of death because his soul is immortal. Additionally, that as a believer in republic ideals he must submit and respect the democratic processes that convicted him.
Socrates was to die by drinking hemlock. His last days he was in prison, and as recorded in Phaedo, surrounded by his family and followers, the group numbering 15. As the time of his death approached he sent his wife away because her grief was unseemly, and unnecessary. In the same way, he sent away one of his followers, Apollodorus, because he became extremely distraught and emotional. Socrates valued stoicism, and these displays of emotion were seen as weakness.
Socrates, earlier in the day had been composing a song/poem on the lyre to Apollo and then discoursing on the immortality of the soul with his students. As the time came to drink the hemlock he thanked the god’s for a peaceful death and “raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it.”
In fact, hemlock is not a peaceful death, but a protracted and painful one. Socrates was 70 years old.
Sculptural nature of David’s Death of Socrates
The Death of Socrates, currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, contains none of the popular melodrama of a baroque work, nor the crowded compositions normally included. Instead the story is distilled down to it’s core.
In fact, the work resembles a frieze. A frieze is a relief sculpture frequently used on ancient buildings. In this painting we have a flat background, with all of the action arranged in a straight line across the midground of the canvas. The work is linear and has a sculptural feel. The careful posing of each figure gives a theatrical feel, with each element posed just so. In fact, we have many preparatory drawings that show David worked, and reworked each area to achieve this balanced, forceful image.
For a hundred years the art of France was ruled by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The Royal Academy exerted control over the teaching and exhibition of art, particularly in Paris, and gave it’s members preference in royal commissions. David was a member, but had a tense relationship with many in the Academy, partially due to his experience with the Prix de Rome.
The Prix de Rome was a contest, and the winner was awarded 5 years of study in Rome. It took David 4 tries to win the Prix de Rome, after his third attempt David became suicidal. The entire experience left him distrustful of the system, and convinced that painting exactly the way the Academy dictated was detrimental to his art.
The Paris Salon was an art exhibition that happened at the Louvre. These shows were juried, meaning works were submitted and had to meet the strict requirements of the Academy. The exhibitions were a major social event and were free and open to the public. An exceptional showing at a Salon could assure an artist of commissions for years. David worked hard to make a splash. In the Salon of 1785 he released a story that he had been killed traveling with his painting from Rome to Paris to ensure there would be plenty of interest in the work.
Coming up on the 1787 Salon, David took his competition with Prix de Rome winner, Pierre Peyron to new levels. Peyron had beaten David in his third attempt, and David had not forgotten. He seemed determined to prove that he was the greater painter.
David discovered that Peyron had been commissioned to paint a work on the death of Socrates, and so David set out to find someone to commission him to paint a work with the same theme. In this way, the works would go up, head to head, against one another, and the public could judge who was the better painter.
As it turns out, David’s The Death of Socrates received such acclaim, that Peyron pulled his work from the exhibition, knowing that the comparisons would be unfavorable. Peyron’s career never fully recovered. In 1788, Peyron repainted his Death of Socrates, and it seems he learned some lessons from David’s work.
Thomas Jefferson and Sir Joshua Reynolds comment on David’s Death of Socrates
Thomas Jefferson was in Paris for the opening of the Salon, and in a letter to John Trumbull, the famous American artist, wrote, “The best thing is the Death of Socrates by David, and a superb one it is.”
Also in Paris was Sir Joshua Reynolds, the celebrated English artist who was also the first president of the Royal Academy of Art in London. He was so taken with David’s painting that he returned 9 times and declared the work, “in every sense perfect”.
Close Reading of David’s Death of Socrates
The Death of Socrates has widely been interpreted as a protest against the corruption of the French state. Socrates is seen to be questioning authority and promoting freedom of thought. Many of David’s countrymen, over the next few years would see the work as a clarion call to revolution.
As we examine the painting we will begin with the figure of Socrates who sits erect in the center. If you recall, I said earlier that Socrates was 70 years old. I’m sure we would all like to be in this kind of shape at 70, but I think it’s safe to say that Socrates is portrayed as improbably youthful, and that a bit of artistic license has been used here.
But why? In the ancient world there was an idea, often referred to as “heroic nudity”. The belief that physical perfection reflects moral perfection. Painting Socrates body, as that of Greek athlete was meant to show the beauty of his soul, and the strength of his character, not to represent the outward appearance of the man.
In fact, in real life Socrates was supposed to have been quite unattractive. He was described as stocky, with a round belly, a snubbed nose, fat lips, and bald. From that description I would say that even the face David has painted, which appears a bit older than his body, is still an idealization.
Socrates wears a white toga, that has fallen of his figure and drapes beautifully over his body. The color adds to the sculpted feel of this work. The fabric is white, an indication of his purity of soul. While David has moved away from his Catholic faith and embraced reason as his religion, he will still borrow heavily from the iconography of religious painting. Doing so makes interpreting his works easier for his audience. The white fabric is often used for the pure in heart, and for heavenly beings, and David is again telling us about the character of this man.
Another link to religious work is that David has reduced the figures from 15, according to Plato’s account, to 12, the number of Christ disciples. In this way David tells us that those present are Socrates followers.
In general, the colors of this work are muted. When David presented his work, The Oath of the Horatti, at the Salon of 1785, there was some criticism that his colors were to bright, too garish. Perhaps he agreed, as here we have the colors toned down, especially toward the out parts of the canvas. Then as we move toward the center the colors become crisp, and sharp, focusing out attention, and making the red garment of the guard stand out and draw our attention.
We see two gestures in David’s Death of Socrates which provide major clues to the meaning of the painting. The first is his hand pointing up. This pose is borrowed directly from Raphael’s work, The School of Athens, which David would have seen in the Vatican during his years in Rome. It’s reported that Raphael was a major influence on David, and we can see that influence here in the beauty of the figures, the draping of fabric, and careful harmonious composition.
Socrates is pointed up toward the heavens, to indicate that he is speaking of the immortality of the soul. We see, abandoned on the bed next to him a lyre, the instruments of the poets. This is to remind us that shortly before his death Socrates had been composing a hymn to Apollo. Running under the lyre we can also see the chain that has bound Socrates in his prison. The chain winds around onto the floor, and we can see that it has been opened, to free Socrates in his last hours of life.
Hand hovering over the cup
Socrates other hand hovers over the calyx, or cup of poison, creating dramatic tension. Many artist had painted Socrates taking the cup, and there are preparatory sketches that show David had considered that option, but instead he’s painted this moment, the moment his hand hovers in the air over the cup, the moment of greatest tension in the story.
From his pose he is still speaking, willingly, even carelessly, reaching out for the cup that holds his death. In this act we see the stoic commitment to abstract ideals, the strength of Socrates beliefs.
This image of the hovering hand is the center of the work, literally. If we draw diagonal lines across the painting we can see that the cup and the hovering hand are the focus.
Holding the cup is the guard, dressed in deep red, the color of blood. The guard is literally delivering death to Socrates, and from his posture he is grieved to do so. He turns his face away, and hunches his shoulders. Even his foot shows his distress. He cannot bear to see what his hand is doing, cannot bear the moment when things will have progressed so far that they cannot be changed.
The guard is the foil to Socrates. Socrates show us the correct way to behave, to meet life and death with equanimity. The guard curls his body, trying to distance and deny what is happening.
As we have observed in the Oath of the Horatti, David uses straight lines in figures to denote strength and curved lines to denote weakness. We find that here as well. Socrates is full of straight lines and angles, his grieving companions are curved in on themselves, displaying an emotionalism that shows weakness.
An interesting detail between the guard and Socrates is the incense burner on a stand. Incense burning can indicate prayers rising to the gods, which is fitting. What is odd about this is that the shadow. The incense burner is missing from the shadow. It has been suggested that this is because, as Socrates reaches for and consumes the poison, a point of no return has been reached and prayers cease. There is no longer a need for them.
Wife and Apollodorus
If we look into the background at the far left of David’s Death of Socrates, we will find a small group of people exiting the prison. One of these, a woman is looking back at us. This is Xanthippe, Socrates wife.
She had been visiting, presumably with other family, perhaps their 3 sons, and was leaving at Socrates instructed because he didn’t want an emotional scene. This is also why Socrates told his student Apollodorous to leave. He is the figure, just outside the room in the hallway with hands raised on the wall in an intense display of grief.
Crito in David’s Death of Socrates
As we move to the right we find a large group of Socrates followers. Sitting on a chair with one hand clutching Socrates knee is Crito, his oldest and most faithful follower. It has been suggested by Victor Moeller, a Professor and advocate of the Socratic method of teaching, that David identified with Crito, and that having Crito clutch Socrates thigh is, in essence, David clutching at the morals and values of Socrates. It appears that Socrates gaze is resting on Crito, further connecting the two figures.
The stone bench that Crito is sitting on, has an owl on it, the symbol of Athens and show us where Socrates prison is located. Lower on the stone David has signed the work, perhaps another indication that he identifies with Crito.
There are several suggestions on how we should read these figures. One of these is that three of the men represent; see no evil, the man dressed in red and blue to the far right, hear no evil, the next man with his hand to his ear, and speak no evil, the man in pale yellow and blue who is stooped over, his right hand presumably over his mouth. While their poses seem to fit this, it seems a stretch to me.
It’s also been suggested that these three figures represent the three estates. French society was divided up into three estates. The first estate is the church, the second estate the King and nobility, and the third estate, the common people. In this scenario, the man to the far right is a soldier, the man with the hand to his ear in the plain brown robe represents the church, and the richly robed man in the yellow and blue is the nobility. Everyone else in the work is the third estate.
This makes a bit more sense, if we allow that David was using this work to make a declaration about the state of the French Government.
Finally, we come to the last figure, back turned, sitting at the foot of the bed. This is Plato, Plato, whose works will immortalize Socrates, and preserve his teaching for posterity. Historically, Plato and Socrates are forever linked, for without Plato, there would be no Socrates. To emphasize the fact that it is Plato’s writings that preserved Socrates philosophical dialogues there is ink and a quill on the floor by his side.
David has gone to great lengths to link the two figures. First, the color of their clothing, both in white, and secondly, there is the gesture to the heavens that Socrates is making.
In Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, the figure making that identical gesture is Plato.
Lastly, in an odd twist Plato is painted as an old man, when in reality he was only 25 years old at the time of Socrates death. It’s as if Socrates and Plato have switched ages.
It has been suggested, and I agree, that this is because David is painting Plato’s memory of the Death of Socrates. Plato was not present at Socrates death, so one has to ask why David, who has gone to great lengths to be accurate, and to link Socrates so strongly with Plato included him. I believe it’s because we are to read this as a memory. It’s as if the scene has exploded out of the back of Plato’s mind. The elderly Plato sits, unengaged, eyes closed as this tense scene unfolds behind him.
In an unusual move, David has signed the Death of Socrates twice. He has put his initials on the bench that Plato is sitting on. Perhaps he is linking himself to Plato, just as Plato preserved Socrates legacy in writing, David is preserving it in paint.
David’s Death of Socrates was an influential work for the Neoclassical movement, along with being a uniting image for the coming revolution. Calling on men to rise to the occasion, to place their lives on the line for their ideals, David lifts up Socrates as our example.
When I view this work I think of the word, equanimity. I think it sums up what we are meant to take from Socrates. The definition I found said, “Equanimity is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of, or exposure to, emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.”
Unfortunately, as French history unfolds over the next decade, there will be little equanimity in site. Instead, terror will reign, aided and abetted by David. Rarely are people, or history clearly good or bad, and that is certainly true of David.
I will be continuing this series on David over the next month, and if you would like to follow along, please subscribe.
You can also read my post on David’s work, The Oath of the Horatii here.