“The Death of Socrates” or “La Morte de Socrate” is perhaps the most famous painting from a French artistic epoch dubbed the Neoclassical period. It is an oil on canvas painting, painted in 1787 by Jacques Louis David (1748-1925), one of the main creators behind the Neoclassical period.
Our initial observations reveal the central action of the painting, as Socrates’s hand moments away from grasping the cup of hemlock which will kill him shortly. He is portrayed as a muscular, tragic hero, who is still teaching his pupils about the importance of philosophy and the eidos, even upon his impending death. He points upward and slightly to the left of the painting, toward where the light is entering, as his last words in Plato’s Phaedo dialogue convey a teaching on the nature of the soul, a moniker by which the ancients knew the name of the dialogue. It is a nod to the upward direction of Plato’s hand in the center of Raphael’s famous “School in Athens” and also to his most famous allegory of the cave as detailed in Book VII of Plato’s Republic. Socrates is shown free of his shackles, which are broken open upon the ground. Beside his right knee rests a musical instrument. He is defiant. He looks sternly on at, or perhaps above, the face of his follower, Crito. Light is shown dramatically breaking into the cell, from left to right, highlighting the freeze of Socrates, who is calmly ready for death.
One way to read “The Death of Socrates” is from right to left. Like a carved image as with those encircling the ancient Acropolis in Athens, the painting tells a story. On the right we see six men, all in anguish. One looks away covering his eyes as if crying out. Their shapes are all curved and twisted, indicating sorrow, as contrasted with the rigid straight lines we see from the heroic figure of Socrates. The most famous of these men is Crito, clutching Socrates leg. The man handing the hemlock to Socrates, covers his face and looks away in sorrow. Plato is seen as an old man, identical to his portrayal in Raphael’s “School in Athens”, and he is hunched over beside a fallen parchment on the ground. Behind him, the scene of Socrates’s death explodes, as if in a powerful memory. Plato’s head is bowed, and his eyes are closed. Behind Plato, Apollodorus holds desperately to the walls of the prison. Further still in the background, Two men lead Xanthippe, Socrates’s wife, away before his death. One person looks back, gazing almost directly at the viewer, and holds up their hand as if to wave goodbye.
The painting is noted for its historical inaccuracies. First, Plato, seen leaning against he far end of the bed, is much older than he would have been at the time of Socrates’s death. Second, Xanthippe, Socrates’s wife, is being led out of the prison in the background, an event which took place quite a while before Socrates’s moment of death as shown in the dialogue, Crito. Third, there are only twelve people present, a nod to the Last Supper, though were more than fifteen people present at the death of Socrates, as detailed in the Phaedo. Fourth, Apollodrus is seen collapsing in anguish against the wall behind where Plato sits, though he was led out of the prison due to his sorrow. Fifth, Socrates is portrayed as muscular and heroic, though he described himself as snub-nosed and ugly in the Theaetetus dialogue.
Who Was Jacques Louis David?
Note that the artist signed the painting in two places, one below an improperly aged Plato leaning against the far side of the bed, in homage to the author, and also beneath Crito who is clutching Socrates’s leg. Here, the artist signs his full name, as he identified more closely with Crito. Recall, Crito was the one attempting to persuade Socrates to flee his cell in the Crito.
At the time of the painting in 1787, the French monarchy was in decline and this was shortly before the terrors which came with the Revolution. David sided with the democratic reformers, though the revolution was shortly to be followed by the Reign of Terror, a movement which took over France, not unlike the hysteria that captured ancient Athens during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants in the time of Socrates.
David harmonized his work with the Ancien Regime, but later changed his allegiances with those of the Revolution. He became friends with Robespierre. He was imprisoned during the French Revolution, and aligned himself with Napoleon. He survived by constantly changing his allegiances: first with the patricians, then the revolutionaries, then with the military king. He is known as the quintessential artist of the French Revolution, capturing the hopes and suffering of the French people. His work for Napoleon has been called a kind of propaganda.
In 18th Century France, as with other parts of the Western world, with the burgeoning field of archaeology and studies of Greek and Roman history, Neoclassicism represented a conservative ideal: to mirror the greatness of the ancients, primarily the Greeks. New Roman cities were discovered and re-ignited interest in the simplicity of Greek and Roman artworks. David’s early works captured the inner turmoil of his characters. David was focused on linear simplicity and purity with his paintings.
The painting was first put on display at the Louvre in Paris, and today it resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the “Met”) in New York. Thomas Jefferson was present at the unveiling of the painting at the Salon in Paris.
Other famous works by Jacques-Louis Davis
Oath of Horatii (1786)
Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1788)
Paris and Helen (1788)
The Tennis Court Oath Drawing (1792)
The Death of Marat (1793)
The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799)
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (1812)
Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801)