À Marat. David


Jacques-Louis David, La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat) (1793), oil on canvas, 165×128 cm,
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels


Neoclassicism. Let’s forget reassuring atmospheres, idyllic settings and ethereal mythological subjects, that is, all those distinctive elements of the classical language, an evergreen that is periodically revisited in order to express man’s aspiration to a blissful life. The revolutionary «Neo» prefix circumscribes the matter to the late Eighteenth century, and defines a radical, virile, rational, – in short, very «yang» – artistic movement, even if the most correct adjective to define it should be «dramatic», because it underscores restlessness, not calm. Therefore, with all due respect to Winckelmann and his «quiet grandeur», there is very little of tranquillity and, therefore, classical in Neoclassicism.



Jacques-Louis David, “Autoportrait” (Self-portrait) (1794), oil on canvas, 81×64 cm,
Musée du Louvre, Paris


The author

Jacques-Louis David was the most neoclassical of all neoclassical artists. Somehow similarly to what Mozart in his maturity meant for the music of the late Eighteenth century. In fact, even for the Austrian composer, drama is not explicit, but linked to the distortion of the form, but it is subtly inherent in the compositional balance.
The French painter, like the musical genius from Salzburg, was a stubborn and nonconformist artist, less dissolute but equally fragile, constantly striving to survive in a historical period of major changes. He was born into a petite bourgeoisie family in the heart of Paris on 30th August 1748. It was his maternal uncle who sensed his ability to draw, and through him, he managed to be introduced to famous François Boucher, who held the title of First Painter of King Louis XV- and who was also a distant relative. Since Boucher was an elderly man then, he decided that instead of mentoring David himself, he would send him to his not so well known but younger friend Joseph-Marie Vien, who would become almost like a father to David.
David could thus study at the Académie Royale, even if he was not exactly a quiet type and had, among other things, a deep facial sword wound which was the consequence of a duel incident. David made three consecutive attempts (and failed) to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, which brought him to the brink of despair and lead him to denounce there was a conspiracy, until his longed-for victory finally materialised in 1774. He was awarded a scholarship to study in Rome, where he stayed for over four years. The great Italian Renaissance and Baroque masters as well as the classical antiquities had a deep impact on him. Thus, he managed to define a truly personal style, a strict and minimalist yet expressive style.
Upon his return to France, in 1781 David exhibited his first mature work, Belisarius Begging for Alms, in which he reflected on the transience of glory and the decadence of the historical period in which he lived. The following year he married Marguerite Charlotte Pécoul, with whom he will have four children. Thanks to his dowry, he managed to set up his own atelier. It was an immediate success and important artists such as Girodet, Gros and Ingres studied there. Although David was not quite well received by the academia, he got increasingly prestigious jobs, and even new King Louis XVI commissioned him to paint one of his most famous works, Oath of the Horatii (1785), which paradoxically became a symbol of those ‘Republican’ values that were the pillars of the French Revolution. Then, the fateful 1789 arrived. And David rushed headlong into the revolt, more to be able to wipe the slate clean regarding the Academy rather than for anything else. He became a sympathizer of the more radical factions and was miraculously saved from being guillotined after Robespierre’s fall from power in 1794.
With the advent of Napoleon, he became his enthusiastic supporter, and regarded him as the embodiment of those values that the Revolution had failed to materialize. He became the official court painter, but in 1815 the defeat of the emperor at Waterloo forced him to flee France. He settled in Brussels, where, now old and disillusioned, he continued to paint, but without the drama, his work came down to a pure and simple classical taste. He died on 29th December 1825 from the sequelae of a mysterious accident: it seems that he was struck by a carriage while he was leaving a theatre.


jean-baptiste-lallemand-l’arrestation-du-gouverneur-de-la-bastille-le-14-juillet-1789- (1790)-musée-de-la-révolution-française-vizille

Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, “L’Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille, le 14 juillet 1789” (Arrest of the Governor of the
Bastille, 14 July 1789) (1790), oil on canvas, 63×80 cm, Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille


The subject

Jean-Paul Marat, born in 1743, was not French: he was Swiss. Son of a former Sardinian Catholic monk converted to Calvinism, from an early age Marat showed a hot and headstrong temper, which soon prompted him to leave his peaceful homeland. He went to Bordeaux first, then to Paris, and finally to the United Kingdom, where he stayed for over a decade. Here he elaborated radical philosophical theories and obtained a degree in medicine in Edinburgh, the result of his passion for science.
In those times, Great Britain was an efficient, dynamic country, showing a robust economic growth. For several decades it was characterized by a constitutional form of government, in which the sovereign’s power is limited and controlled by Parliament. A liberal, fertile, lively environment, in which Marat felt at ease. Yet he decided to return to Paris; for about ten years he practised medicine there with mixed success, constantly involved in futile disputes and quarrels with the scientific and philosophical authorities of the time. In short, Marat is a brawler, with sudden changes in mood; moreover, he was involved in subversive circles.
Furthermore, the France of that period was markedly different from Great Britain. In theory, it should be an absolute monarchy, in which the king’s power is not restricted by any constitutional constraint, but perhaps it is better to call it an ‘absent’ monarchy, because there has been no trace of the king for a while. We are no longer in the times of superhuman Louis XIV, the «Sun King», who, for better or for worse, had built a superpower. During the long reign of his successor, Louis XV, who was more interested in pleasures than in duties, France had remained immobile, watching how its public debt grew.
Now a young Louis XVI, more devoted to the state but equally weak, tried everything he could to overcome the capital shortfall, but finally decided to finance the Americans in their rebellion against the British. The inevitable storm of the Revolution broke out in 1789, when the dreadful ‘hole in the budget’ came to light during the convocation of the Estates General. At first, it was an ‘institutional’ revolt, with bourgeois representatives who in fact aspired to the English model, but then the question turned into a popular uprising, symbolically represented by the Storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789.
Without an authority, rioters began to turn against each other. Marat became one of the leaders of the radical coalition of the Montagnards, which encompassed Robespierre’s Jacobins and Danton’s Cordeliers. He devoted himself to writing and began his own newspaper, L’Ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People), a name he earned due to his closeness to the popular masses. He lived with his wife Simone in extreme poverty. He was always ready to help the destitute, but his extremism led him to an increasingly fierce and ruthless behaviour. When France was declared a Republic in 1792 and the king was guillotined afterwards, intolerance towards the moderate factions – the Feuillants and the Girondins – grew. It was indeed a young Girondin woman, Charlotte Corday, who stabbed him mortally in the chest on 13th July 1793.


pietà-di-michelangelo (1499)-deposizione-borghese-di-raffello-(1507)-deposizione-di-caravaggio-(1604)-la-morte-di-marat-di-david-(1793)

A comparison among “Pietà” by Michelangelo (1499), “The Borghese Deposition” by Raphael (1507), “The Entombment of Christ” by Caravaggio (1604) and “The Death of Marat” by David (1793)


The composition

Marat was the ideological hub of the Revolution. David was the artist of revolutionary propaganda. It was almost impossible that they did not respect each other. When his friend was assassinated, David gladly accepted the proposal by the National Convention (the representative constituent assembly of the new Republic) to create a painting to immortalise the tragic event, to be exhibited precisely on its plenary sessions.
David decided not to represent the crime itself, but the ‘crime scene’: the body slumps inside a bathtub – Marat often took baths in an attempt to soothe the pain caused by a chronic skin disease -, his left hand still holds the note with which his assassin had falsely presented herself as needing help; the quill pen, the journalist’s noble ‘weapon’, is in his right hand, next to the blood-stained implement of his murder lying on the floor. A poor wooden box serves as a makeshift table upon which there are an inkwell, another writing, and a banknote, probably intended for some poor man. On the side of which we see the engraved dedication by the author. The murderer is not portrayed in the painting, to be condemned to oblivion, true, but also because it is not clear who that really was: it is the light of reason, which cuts through the dark background, that demands that «light be shed» on the murder, on any accomplices or instigators. Light is clearly in a style reminiscent of Caravaggio, even if here, as already mentioned, we are dealing with a rational, not divine, light. It is curious that even if David is an exponent of Neoclassicism, he chose to evoke dramatic and obscure Caravaggio, disliked by any classicist worth his salt. But as mentioned earlier, there is very little of classical in Neoclassicism.
The representation is minimalist due to the few colours used that underline the strong and simple geometries. Furthermore, in this masterpiece, the implacable and violent realism of the story meets the desire to go beyond a mere photographic representation, to rise to a symbolic level, by freezing the drama in a timeless, eternal dimension. This extraordinary fusion has been a source of inspiration for numerous artists over time, Edward Munch and Pablo Picasso among others, who have rendered their very personal interpretations of the subject. In the world of cinema, the clearest and most recent reference made to the painting is by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn in The Neon Demon (2016). But before that, Stanley Kubrick, besides directing Barry Lyndon (1975) or the best fresco of the Eighteenth century ever, mentions it in Full Metal Jacket (1987).
But what makes the painting so outrageous? The clue is the right arm hanging down limply: another explicit reference to Caravaggio and his extraordinary Deposizione, already painted by Raphael and, going further back in time, by Michelangelo. Thus, for David, Marat becomes a sort of secular Christ – or «Neo-Christ» -, a martyr of the Revolution, an altruist who was consistent and true to his own values unto death. However, it must not be forgotten that Marat was also a demon, who did not hesitate to summarily put people to death. Scandal, however, is not so much detectable in the portrayal of Christ as a political and social revolutionary – an idea already widely in the pipeline at the time -, but in having depicted a demon as a martyr, or rather, even more profoundly, having understood that even a demon can be a martyr.


The images shown in this article are taken from these websites: link, link, link and link.
These images are protected by copyright and are shown for illustrative purposes only, without any commercial purpose.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The content that the owner of the blog has written are protected pursuant to Italian Act No. 248 of 18 August 2000. Such content cannot be copied, reproduced, published or redistributed because they are the property of this author. It is prohibited to copy, reproduce, publish or redistribute this content on any support, digital or otherwise, unless this has been expressly authorised by the author, it has without the specifically authorised, particularly if such content is used for marketing purposes and/or in other Internet websites.

Copyright © 2021-2023  Digitalis Purpurea®. All rights reserved.

Skip to content