Jacques Louis David’s, Death of Marat, was a ground breaking painting of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, the radical revolutionary who condemned thousands to the scaffold during France’s Reign of Terror. Capturing the quiet moment just after Marat’s murder, David transforms the terrorist, Marat, into a noble martyr and rallying symbol for the Revolution. A skillful piece of propaganda for the new government, this painting was celebrated when first displayed. Quickly, however, the political tides turned, and the painting became a source of shame and was hidden away, first by David, and then by his descendants.
David was a classically trained, French painter who is most noted for popularizing the Neoclassical style, and for signing the death warrant of King Louis XVI. One of the most politically active artists of all time, David’s life would include revolutionizing art, participating in the Great Terror of the French Revolution, serving as court painter to Napoleon, and finally, living out his days in exile.
In the first two installments on David’s art that I’ve posted, we were dealing with his pre-revolutionary pieces. With the Death of Marat, the artist has fully embraced his role as a radical revolutionary who works in service to the ideals of the new Republic. To understand this work we are going to need a bit of context.
The French Revolution, inadequately explained
I’m going to do a really fast rundown on the French Revolution, to set up our painting, and the role both David and Marat played.
France was going through hard economic times, and was deeply in debt. The Monarchy and the nobility were at an impasse. The King needed a program of financial reform and taxes, particularly, land taxes. The Nobility, were part of a Parliament (this gets complicated, and we’re going to gloss it over) that refused to agree to any reforms, protecting their interest. After multiple failed maneuverings, in 1789, King Louis XVI decided to resurrect the Estates General, which had not happened since 1614.
In France, society is divided into three Estates. The first Estate is the Church, the Second Estate is the Nobility, and the Third Estate are the commoners. The Estates General is a convention of sorts where all three groups send representatives to hash out issues. When the Estates gathered in 1789, discord and debate ensue, this time over how voting within the Estates General would work. Traditionally, each Estate gets one vote, setting things up so that the Church and Nobility can consolidate and protect their power as they can outvote the Third Estate. The Third Estate was pushing for a more representative vote.
Things fell apart quickly. The Third Estate decided to separate and form the National Assembly. They asked the other Estates to join them, but with or without them they were going to move ahead making changes, writing a Constitution. They were locked out of the meeting area, and reconvened on a nearby tennis court. On June 20, 1789, the representatives of the Commoners with clergy and nobility sympathetic to reform, took the Tennis Court Oath, promising, “We shall not disband until we have constructed a nation of individual citizens instead of a kingdom of servile subjects.”
Things moved quickly from there. July 14th the Bastille was stormed and surrendered. On Aug 27, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen was published. On Oct. 6, women marched on the palace at Versailles and brought the King and his family back to Paris where they could, “keep an eye on them.” As the situation grew more tense, in 1791, the Royal family attempted to flee France and were caught. In 1792 war broke out and the Monarchy was overthrown. In December, a trial was held, and on January 21, 1793 King Louis XVI was beheaded.
Shortly after, the Jacobins, a radical party of the revolution, gained control and the Great Terror began. While purportedly, a Republic, in actuality the new government was more of a dictatorship run by the radical reformer, Robespierre. By April, the Committee of Public Safety had taken control. In July, Marat is assassinated and David paints his death.
The Terror was a period from 1793-1794 when the new government sought to purge France of all of the enemies of the Revolution. Over time 300,000 would be arrested, 17,000 executed and another 10,000 would die in prison without a trial.
Besides those horrendous numbers, what made that year truly terrifying was that most of the people killed were ordinary citizens. One never knew when a disgruntled neighbor or vindictive family member might turn one’s name into the tribunal. I had an understanding that it was the wealthy, abusive nobility and royals who died, and they were certainly targeted, however, once headed down this path, it was inevitable that the list of ‘enemies’ grew, and the fairness of trials shrank. An individual could be brought before the tribunal if heard criticizing the new government. The Rights of Man, that had recently been touted as the new way forward, were cast aside in the effort to secure power. Terror was the order of the day.
And the terror was intentional. Robespierre in a speech to the National Convention in 1794 said, “The attribute of popular government in a revolution is at one and the same time virtue and terror. Terror without virtue is fatal; virtue without terror is impotent. The terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is thus an emanation of virtue.”
Bertrand Barere, another of the prominent members of the National Convention stated, “Let us make terror the order of the day.” and “The tree of liberty grows only when watered by the blood of tyrants.”
And as we shall see David and Marat were willing accomplices in this reign of terror.
David had become close friends with Marat and Robespierre, who became a violent dictator. David was caught up in the revolutionary rhetoric and excitement. His earlier works, particularly the Oath of the Horatii and The Death of Socrates, were interpreted by many as criticisms of the current system and a call to take up the cause of liberty. Some feel this is reading back into the paintings, meanings that were not present when he painted them, but one can hardly argue that when given the chance he jumped on the idea of revolution.
David was not just at the National Convention, but signed the death warrant for the King. A member of the Jacobins, he served on the Committee of Public Safety and participated in the Great Terror. His signature appears on at least 300 execution orders. Additionally, he served as the Minister of Propaganda organizing festivals, pamphlets, and art to further the cause. It is said, David painted the truth that he wanted to believe, and he wanted to believe that he and his friends were involved in a noble cause.
Here are David’s word on his involvement, “I am making it my duty to answer the noble invitations of patriotism and of glory that will consecrate the history of the most felicitous and most astonishing Revolution.” and “I will never, for the future, paint the portrait of a tyrant until his head lies before me on the scaffold.”
Marat’s Role in the Revolution
Jean-Paul Marat was a fiery orator and a newspaper editor. He used his voice, and his paper to disseminate his radical political views and to incite violence against his enemies. He lived to accuse and then execute traitors and sent thousands to their deaths. Open to spreading conspiracy theories through pamphlets, his accusations expanded to include, not just those who were opposed to the Revolution, but also those he deemed apathetic, or not properly committed.
Authorities appear split on where the loyalties of Miss Corday resided. Some hold that she was a Royalist, and decided to assassinate Marat in defense of the Crown. Others think she was a revolutionary but believed that the current reign of terror and government of Robespierre made a mockery of the ideals of the Revolution. In either case she believe she was the tragic heroine who could save France.
Corday prepared for the day with fasting and prayer, then sewed her Certificate of Baptism and a letter explaining her actions into her dress. On July 13, 1793, she presented herself at Marat’s home with a letter of introduction and, supposedly, a list of traitors that she wished Marat to investigate. Marat’s fiancé allowed her in and took her to his room. Suffering from a painful skin condition, Marat spent hours a day in a bath. He had a desk for the bath and often conducted business while bathing. This is how Corday came to stab Marat while he bathed.
As there were many people in the house, she was found out immediately, and made no attempt to escape. She was tried, convicted, and executed 4 days later, at the age of 24.
Immediately upon hearing of Marat’s murder, the Convention called David to commemorate his death. By some accounts, David was able to get to the scene and make sketches even before the body was removed.
This painting of Marat’s death would be an immediate success, and then a guilty secret hidden away.
David and the new government had already realized the power of propaganda and while mourning their friend, they also seized the opportunity to make him into a heroic martyr for the cause.
Reading the Work
As a modern viewer, we miss just how shocking this painting was for it’s time. During David’s life artists didn’t cover contemporary, historical events. This was only one of the aspects of this work that amazed viewers.
In an interesting twist, David did not paint the drama of the assassination, but the quiet aftermath. He didn’t paint an accurate portrayal of Marat, but a likeness of him, recognizable but favoring idealism. One might even say Marat has a cult like quality here. Marat has been transformed from a paranoid, violent, revolutionary to a modern hero, martyred for a noble cause.
To achieve the aim of transforming Marat into a martyr, David pulls heavily from the iconography of religious works that the public would be familiar with, even though the new government was moving away from religion.
The obvious goal of the new government was to dismantle the monarchy, and the hierarchical systems of the nobility, but that was not their only goal. They also sought to secularize religion.
Between 1790 and 1794 many new policies were enacted with the goal of dechristianizing France, which basically meant eliminating the Roman Catholic Church. There was a nationalization (or seizing) of church property and money, and over 30,000 priests were exiled. Religious services and observations were made illegal and the Christian calendar was replaced with a new one, one that made the start of the Revolution year 1.
We can see that David embraced this idea when we look at how he signed this work. Under his signature he has included the year, Deux, or two, of the new calendar.
Two new forms of religion were introduced to fill the void in people’s lives and schedules. The deists created the Cult of the Supreme Being, and the atheists promoted the Cult of Reason. David was involved with the Cult of the Supreme Being, and created the grand pageantry for it’s celebrations.
In going about this painting, David recognized that he didn’t have to reinvent everything. Pulling from the imagery people already identified with, he could appropriate the iconography of Christianity for his more secular message.
Religious imagery re-imagined
One of the most noted religious references in this work is the arm of Marat, making him a modern, if secular, Christ figure. Throughout religious art, in paintings and sculpture, when Christ is portrayed in death, his arm hangs in just this way. One famous example, that David would have had the opportunity to study and sketch, would be Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of the Pieta. Another famous work, that uses the arm position is Van Der Weyden’s, Deposition from the Cross. In that work, the artist uses the arm to visually connect Christ and the Virgin Mary, communicating that both are sacrificially suffering for humanity.
David borrows this iconography for Marat, with his arm limply hanging over the side of his bath, we are meant to see him as a holy martyr. At least holy in the sense that he is set apart for a specific mission. David is telling us that Marat is a new kind of secularized saint of a new civil religion.
Continuing on with the religious references, we have the white bath sheets draped around Marat as a shroud, and his white turban providing a halo. The wound on Marat’s chest has been called a secularized stigmata, but it does resemble the wound on Christ side from a soldier’s spear that is often included in Crucifixion works.
In a religious work the top of the painting would have been populated by angels. David, has given us a background devoid of any details, but one that is strikingly effective. A beatific light shines down on Marat from the right, highlighting him and seeming to promise he will be lifted to a glorious afterlife. The lighting creates an atmosphere of silence, the moment after the murder, but before it is discovered. This quiet, stillness has a church-like quality to it.
David is offering the public some of the comfort of a religious understanding of death, a promise that this life is not all, but avoids the obvious Christian messaging. It is a subtle distinction, one that perhaps works on the subconscious, and causes the painting to elicit a strong response from those who saw it.
Eliminating Charlotte Corday
There are many paintings of Marat’s death, and they generally include a cast of characters, including the murderess, Corday. These paintings elicit a very different response in the viewer. By including Corday, the viewer is forced to examine her motivation and actions. Her storyline enters in, and the viewer must consider which figure is the hero in this story. Is this death more nuanced than a straight forward murder? Who was Marat? Did he deserve to die?
When we include Corday, we introduce complexity, questions, and motivations.
David, by editing the composition so severely, by including only Marat and a few other details, David has controlled the story the work tells. Far easier to convert a man like Marat from sinner to saint if we carefully edit the story, so that Marat is the victim, one who has been struck down while tirelessly (even in pain, and in his bath) working for the people.
Beauty and Virtue
David’s compositions are noted for their balance and careful placement of figures for optimal impact. I recently watched a lecture on this work given by an Art historian and a forensic scientist. I’ll link to the lecture below, it’s fascinating. During the lecture a slide was shown that divided the work into fourths, with each fourth having a specific focus. I found the division interesting, so we’ll explore the rest of the details in this painting in this way.
Basically, I’m skipping the upper right quadrant as that is empty, and we’ve noted the play of light on the background all ready.
The upper left quadrant is David’s face and shoulder. David has not painted an accurate portrait here, he’s painted a likeness. Those who knew Marat would recognize him, but David has done the equivalent of photoshopping him here. He’s made Marat far more beautiful in death than he was in life. There is no evidence of the horrible skin disease that drove Marat to sit in a bath for hours per day to try to find relief. His features have been softened, and his expression is serene.
There is a long standing connection between beauty and virtue. Painting Marat in this way was meant to tell the viewer that Marat had a beautiful character, not to give a realistic snapshot of a violent death.
In the lower left corner of the work, we have the evidence of the crime. The bloodied knife lies on the floor, the gapping wound in his chest, the blood dripping down the bath sheet, and the bloodied water all point to Charlotte’s guilt.
The lower right corner of the painting is meant to tell us who Marat was and that he died in the midst of his work for the revolution.
He holds a quill, and there is a pot of ink on the box next to the bed. He was writing a letter when Charlotte was brought in. In his hand he is holding the letter that Corday handed him, and it reads, (translated from the French), “July 13, 1793. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday to the citizen Marat. My great unhappiness gives me a right to your kindness.” She was entering Marat’s presence under false pretenses. The other letter sitting on the box next to the bed is one that Marat was writing to a widow, who was the mother of a soldier who had died. Marat was sending her a donation.
In these two letters we have Charlotte’s duplicity contrasted with Marat’s nobility. We also have Charlotte’s bad actions contrasted with the widow’s sacrifice for the revolution. David has used this portion of the painting to tell us more about who Marat is, a man of his word, unlike Charlotte. And unlike the murderess, he is caring for grieving widows. Of course, a man who sends thousands to the gallows is hardly losing sleep over the widows and orphans he is leaving behind, but that is not the point.
The box David has next to the bed tells us more. As we’ve said, David signed this work with the year, two, on this box that he is using as a desk. The box emphasizes that Marat was not pretentious or living in luxury, but sacrificing to tirelessly work for the nation.
David’s Death of Marat, was initially a triumph and achieved all that David had hoped. Marat was transformed from a mere man to a martyr and modern day saint. His sainthood was short-lived, as most were not ready to forgive the death and destruction he had wrought on Paris. When Robespierre and his party were overthrown, then tried for treason and executed, David barely escaped with his life. He then hid away the Death of Marat, and began to forge a new identity and career.
If you missed the posts that I did earlier in this series you can find them here. The Oath of the Horatii and the Death of Socrates were both painted before the Revolution, but we can see the early signs of what is to come.
Join me as we continue on this journey exploring the works of Marat by subscribing to the blog. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel where videos will soon be going up on the works of David.
Here is the lecture given by the art historian and the forensic scientist that I referenced earrlier.