In my essay I will analyze the historical picture “ The Death of Socrates” (Oil on Canvas, 51” х771/4 1787, Metropolitan Museum of Art), painted by neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David. David’s controversial painting depicts the last moments of life of the greatest Athenian philosopher – Socrates. The government of Athens condemned Socrates for death or for exile for being an atheist and for his teaching methods which awoke skeptical thinking and criticism in his disciples. Socrates accepted death from drinking poison and heroically rejected exile.
In particular, Jacques-Louis David depicted the scene where the great philosopher, surrounded by his friends, is sitting on the couch and reaching the cup of hemlock and is pronouncing his final words. The controversy of the painting lays in the opposition of death and life, self-control and the state of being emotionally overwhelmed, evil and good, true and wrong. The main idea of the picture – the victory of mind over death – is brightly expressed with the help of the setting, distribution of light and dark.
In this work I shall try to contemplate the different reasons for why Socrates chose to accept a punishment of death rather than attempt to use the opportunities given him to avoid the death penalty. Among the most probable explanations ethics and martyrdom will be taken into consideration. Also my analysis of the picture will comprise the following characters: Socrates himself, the characters of philosopher’s friends and disciples, the wife of Socrates. In addition, I will set the historical background for my analysis and provide it with the necessary proofs and quotations from the reliable sources.
The author of the painting “ The Death of Socrates”, Jacques-Louis David, was born on August 30, 1748 in a wealthy family of a Parisian merchant. He received his first education at a boarding school the College des Quatre Nations in his native city. Then David became a student of a famous professor Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), who had a reputation of a good teacher and produced a great impact on the development of a young artist. From 1766 to 1774 Jacques-Louis David studied art in Vein’s class at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.
In his paintings David created a new cult of the civic virtues – his main characters serve as perfect models of stoical self-sacrifice, austerity, devotion to duty and honesty. Thus the artist attempted to pass his revolutionary ideas through his works and later he became known as “ the painter of revolution”. Also the modern critics of art noted that David’s paintings of ‘ martyrs of the Revolution’ were devised as portraits, nevertheless, raised portraiture into the domain of the universal tragedy.
At those days the most influential and prevalent movement in painting and other arts was Neoclassicism (early works in the 1960s with its peak period in the 1780s and ’90s, and lasted till 1840s and ’50s). Entailed by the revolution and Enlightenment epoch, the Neoclassical period presents a distinguishing artistic trend. Jacques Louis David was the first political painter, and a true revolutionary, but one cannot detach his paintings from the social and political systems of the period.
Therefore, it is essentially important to cover some key concepts of the social context and systems of Pre Revolution France, Neoclassicism and how David’s work was swayed by it and how his works themselves influenced it. At first, Neoclassicism was a sort of reaction to the “ triviality” of predecessor style – Rococo, which was perceived as decadent, selfish and expressing no regard for society’s needs. For a run of the seventeenth century, as well as during the Rococo period, the French Academy promoted a more classical style.
French Academy was firts established in 1498 by Leonardo da Vinci. The first its mission was to serve as a meeting of people willing to discuss art and science. Later by means of an apprenticeship system the academy evolved into school where the masters were teaching students basing on the instruction of these subjects. During the seventeenth century the institution was re-established as the French Royal Academy which had very dictatotial authority. The only possible way for artists to gain recognition for their art was to attend and study at the Academy.
In 1793, it was the time after the French Revolution, the Academy was again reformed into the Institute de France under Jacques Louis David, who established a widespread teaching network to encourage Neoclassicism. Actually it was one of the reasons why French artists of the late eighteenth century adopted the New Classicism that was to be the next popular style. When we speak about the Neoclassical period and various features that influenced it, we can distinguish two major features: The first was the strong impact of Nicolas Poussin (1593/4 – 1665).
Nicolas Poussin was commissioned by cardinal Barberini to create drawings of any possible classical art and architecture he could reveal. This task later had a great influence on his subsequent paintings. His creations were strictly ordered and idealized. An example of his classically arranged landscape is Landscape with Saint John on Patmos (1640, Oil on Canvas). Poussin’s work then became model for later painters of the late seventeenth century. The second significant impact on the neoclassical period was the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
The sculptures and jewellery as well as paintings were brought forth from these sites; they astonished contemporary artists and served as inspiration for their artistic works. These mines of wealth satiated an interest in Greco-Roman art, which is the obvious indication of Neoclassicism. People began to form new perceptions of society which were grounded on the Roman republic, and later these themes began to symbolize freedom and democracy (actually the basic notions of Romanticism).
The predominating artistic postulate of the time was the idea that, one must raise beauty over morality and that beauty lies in shape and contour, not in color, which only assisted beauty. Neoclassical typical features in painting became apparent in the form of an emphasis on austere linear design of pictures with utilization of classical themes, paying much attention to archaeologically correct settings and costumes with as much historical accuracy as possible. Particularly, France was the place of vigorous rise of Neoclassical painting style in the 1780s. Jacques-Louis David took a leading role in the developing process of the style.
In his paintings Jacques-Louis David follows the style of Poussin as apposed to his previous Baroque styled works. As it was noted above it may have been attributed to the Academy’s austere stylistic approach. During his five-year trip to Italy (1775-1780) where he was strongly influenced by classical art, David started to base his forms and gestures on Roman sculpture. As another consequence of that trip to Italy, mythology became a subject of particular interest to David, and after his return to Paris in 1780; he started to work on art that illustrated it.
In 1871 David was made an associate member of the academy for his masterful depiction of one of the greatest military commanders of Rome, Belisarius, in oils, Belisaire demandant l’aumone (1781, Oil on canvas). Not long after that, he was made a full Academician. David actively participated in the political events that occured before, during and after the Revolution. He became a member of the class of democrats that had determined to destroy the aristocratic institutions, called Jacobins.
The Jacobin leaders managed to bring the Monarchy to an end, but they began their own pursuites of the people who opposed them in their striving for democracy. Shortly after, Robespierre (Jacobin leader) and his closest supporters were overthrown and executed and David was arrested twice and only just escaped with his life. This period denotes the end of David’s political radicalism, but an advance in his work. The self portrait (1794, Oil on canvas), which was painted in prison after the fall of Robespierre, and the Intervention of the Sabine Woman (1799, Oil on canvas) are two of the most prominent works of this stage in his life.
In 1797 David had an encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte, and shortly after his first meeting he became Napoleon’s official court painter. Some of the noteworthy works done in these years include: Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (1800, Oil on canvas), Napoleon in His Study (1812, Oil on canvas), the very large work spanning 6 metres by 9 metres, Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine (1808, Oil on canvas). 1815 was the year of Napoleon’s downfall and David was exiled. He escaped to Brussels, where he kept on working on his favourite subject matter, Mythology.
Jacques Louis David died in his studio in Brussels in 1825. (Gilmore Holt: 1-4) Basing on the common features associated with Roman Republic and contemporary France neoclassical painters often resorted to famous literary works as a source of inspiration for their paintings. Thus, ‘ The Death of Socrates’ is an outstanding example where the application of famous literary work, in this case Plato’s Phaedo, as painter’s source of inspiration is present. In his painting The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David does not simply depict a scene from Plato’s work he paints it from another perspective, that is, in Roman foreshortening.
For example the setting of the picture is a prison, where Socrates is waiting for the execution of his unjust death sentence, it is a chamber with Roman arches on the windows and an arch in the hallway. Besides, attentive spectator can notice also a lamp in Roman style right behind Socrates. The chamber is dark, not lightened and very somber. The author puts not much furniture in it, only the wooden bed and some small benches, which adds realism to the painting. The walls of the chamber are also obscure and thus it is difficult to differentiate their true color.
On the whole, the chamber where Socrates spends the last minutes of his life can be a symbol of the outer world – the world where darkness and unfairness are predominating. The perceived reality of this world can be philosophically explained in such a way: we all have to linger in the place where there are vague borders between light and dark, good and bad, true and wrong. Philosophically life itself can be compared with such a cell and death in this case can be viewed as a long-awaited release. Historically, paintings borrowed their motives from the theatre, and acting and scene painting borrowed their themes from history painting.
Each art form influenced other art forms. Not only did paintings present theatricalized historical moments, but “ historical” performances were offered of a wide variety of topics. Jacques-Louis David’s ‘ Death of Socrates’ presents a drama of dying, offering a “ historical” account to spectators. The figures representing spectators in that painting display affective responses to Socrates’s impending death in a style illustrative of the influence of theatre. On one hand, these figures seem to be acting out parts in the continuing drama of Socrates’s life; on the other, they seem to be posed in statuesque frames.
Another essential point to be discussed within the picture analysis is a distribution of light and dark accents. David’s technique aids in distinguishing the significance and of Socrates. First of all, the windows and the lamp in the background intentionally are not the main sources of light in this scene. Socrates is the central figure in the picture and the painter intentionally emphasizes his face with a bright flash of light. It seems that the philosopher is shining like a lantern for the rest of the people and this light draws a strong opposition to the gloominess of the whole cell.
However, the origin of the primary source of light that is emphasizing on Socrates and then on his disciples is unknown. In the painting Socrates is surrounded by the blinding glare brighter than all of the other light accents. In this manner the author applies light contrasts to underscore Socrates’ “ oneness”. However, the lighting contrast is not the only technique David uses to accentuate Socrates exceptional meaning. One should notice the way his body is painted. David depicts Socrates with athletic and an ideally proportioned body so that Socrates appears as a perfect man.
In addition 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. In the movements and gesture Socrates demonstrates the way he sacrifices himself rather than betray his own principles. Socrates points his finger upward and it is higher than anyone in this painting. This gesture must symbolize that his philosophical teachings will have no end. What is even more important is that the painter depicted Socrates without anything supporting his back, keeping it straight and strong.
A Socrates without any back support aids in showing the viewer that Socrates is resolute and free. The freedom within the prison walls is a strong appeal to the viewers and this feeling of being free is supported by showing the shackles on the floor clearly illustrating a sense of freedom; however, it is obvious that this freedom is of his spirit being freed from this material world. Philosopher’s face is calm and peaceful. Socrates takes a cup of hemlock but there is no fear or anxiety seen in his eyes. He faces his death with serenity and keeps adherence to his principles and ideals.
While his third speech at the trial Socrates argues that “… there is a good reason to hope that death is good” (Plato, The Apology of Socrates), because either death is a “ state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness” (Plato, The Apology of Socrates), or there is a migration of the soul to another world where all the dead are. In this world, as Socrates states, he can “ converse with Orpheus and Musaedus and Hesoid and Homer. ” (Plato, The Apology of Socrates). In this way, the great philosopher, on the one hand, claims the immortality of soul, and, on the other hand, sets an example of “ self-control even in the face of death”.
His students on the other hand feel inexpressible sorrow at the death of their teacher and seem to be taking his execution worse than Socrates. Socrates asked to take away his wife and family from the chamber where he was to drink the poison because the might get too emotional and his last request was to die in “ omened silence”. The character of Socrates in David’s painting is deep, symbolic and meaningful in many ways. I think that Socrates represents the victory of mind over death.
With his conduct in the last moments of his life he demonstrated indifference to the common feeing of fear of death. According to Plato, “… he stoically drank the potion, quite readily and cheerfully. Up till this moment most of us were able with some decency to hold back our tears, but when we saw him drinking the poison to the last drop, we could restrain ourselves no longer. ” (“ The Suicide of Socrates, 399 BC”) Additionally, by behaving in this way Socrates teaches his contemporaries and modern generation.
As Plato, one of the brightest students of Socrates and later a prominent philosopher himself, witnessed (399 BC), “ Socrates was 70 years old and familiar to most Athenians. His anti-democratic views had turned many in the city against him. Two of his students, Alcibiades and Critias, had twice briefly overthrown the democratic government of the city, instituting a reign of terror in which thousands of citizens were deprived of their property and either banished from the city or executed. ” (“ The Suicide of Socrates, 399 BC”).
Thus from reading Plato we know that there were Phaedo, for whom the dialogue is named, Crito, Cebes, Simmias, and Apollodorus together with Socrates. Plato, however, was not present, but David includes him, seated at the foot of the bed, facing away. The wife of Socrates is shown departing up the steps to the left. Socrates was stoic until the end, not so his disciples. Plato mentioned that ‘ You are strange fellows; what is wrong with you? I sent the women away for this very purpose, to stop their creating such a scene. I have heard that one should die in silence. So please be quiet and keep control of yourselves.’ (“ The Suicide of Socrates, 399 BC”).
Plato wrote that “ Apollodorus was already steadily weeping, and by drying his eyes, crying again and sobbing, he affected everyone present except for Socrates himself. ” (“ The Suicide of Socrates, 399 BC”) How it was already mentioned Jacques Louis David was one of the brightest neoclassical painters. Apart from just using classical literature and motives for his paintings he also put some deeper powerful meanings meaning into them, historical and political. And to get grasp of this meaning it is necessary to understand the historical circumstances of his days.
The period of French Revolution was the most appropriate for creating revolutionary masterpieces. David’s work was often treated as a republican manifesto. Various historical events often have a considerable impact on artists’ career, in this particular case such event was mainly the French Revolution. For nearly each of David’s paintings as a contextual background served some story of historical importance. It is also very likely that David’s paintings were often misinterpreted simply due to the fact that someone didn’t fully grasp the significance of the artwork.
For one to grasp the idea of the work depicted by the artist, it is rather important that one possesses some knowledge of the conceptual significance as well as the stylistic relevance of the particular time periods which the art represents. To achieve an accurate meaning intended by the artist it is necessary to understand the reality that has helped shape the genre in which the work and its artist best exemplify, possess knowledge on the French Revolution, how different French society and culture was and information regarding each artists background, for example, who they were, and what they meant to the general public of that time.
Jean-Louis David’s possessed that exclusive form of neoclassical painting, which is quite difficult to be separated from the political and social context and thus makes his works very different from the traditional paintings of the era. David’s artwork raises many debates and discussions even now, however, one must acknowledge the way artistic concerns bound themselves up with broader social issues. His painting bears powerful symbolic political references.
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