Case Study: Neoclassicism, “The Death of Socrates”

“The Death of Socrates” or “La Morte de Socrate” is perhaps the most famous painting from the French artistic epoch dubbed the Neoclassical period. It is an oil on canvas painting, created in 1787 by Jacques Louis David (1748-1925, pronounced “Jahk Lewie Dahveed”), one of the main artists of the “Neoclassical” style.


Our initial observations reveal the central action of the painting, as Socrates’s hand is 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 lying 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. Later, he was exiled. 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

Jacques-Louis_David_-_Oath_of_the_Horatii_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Oath of Horatii (1786) -like the “Death of Socrates” above, the “Oath of Horatii” is one of the seminal works of neoclassicism. It portrays a famous Roman legend, as described in the works of Livy. As the legend goes, Rome was engaged in conflict with a neighboring polis, Alba Longa. Ultimately, two leading families decide to end the conflict by sending three of their best fighters from each side, agreeing to battle to the death until the last son is left standing. Three sons of the Horatii family are chosen to represent Rome in battle against three sons of the Curiatii family. All but one brother is killed. He leads the opposing three brothers in a chase which ultimately separates them, allowing the surviving of Horatius to kill them all one by one. Like Odysseus, he outsmarts his enemy, leading to victory. The narrative is complicated by the fact that daughters of Horatius are romantically involved with sons of Curiatti. The story is also an allegory for the time of its painting: revolutionary France, in which loyalty to city, state, clan, or family was thrown into disarray.

Note the theatrical lighting in the painting (echoing the parthenon freeze). On the right of the painting lie three women with children, all weeping. To the left are the three brothers of Horatius, showing their outstretched saluting hands (note the similarity to latter Nazi salutes) ready to sacrifice their lives in patriotic duty, while their father hands them their swords. Three arches in the background convey a sense of space, with shadows and hallways. What are the background images and figures in the shadows?

It was displayed at the Salon in 1785. Recall that at the time, Diderot and Voltaire were calling for rationalism, and a new kind of patriotism. This painting was an answer to that call. This coming from an artist who called for the beheading of the king of France, as well. This painting was commissioned by the king.

David_-_Portrait_of_Monsieur_Lavoisier_and_His_WifePortrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1788) -a portrait of the famous French chemist sitting in his study looking up at his wife, Marie-Ann who commissioned the portrait. She was being taught how to draw by David. She, alone, stares out of the portrait. During the Reign of Terror at the height of the French Revolution, Lavoisier was accused of tax farming and barbarically guillotined at the age of 50.

Helene_Paris_DavidParis and Helen (1788) -a full image of the painting is below:

The Love of Paris and Helen by Jacques-Louis David.jpg
The “Loves of Paris and Helen” painting portrays a kidnapped Helen with Paris in Troy, likely while the battle rages outside the walls of Priam. Paris sits on a luxurious bed, nude, while holding a harp with a small inscription alluding to the “Judgment of Paris” on it. Helen gazes solemnly downward. She is conflicted. They are in a large, echoing chamber in front of a fountain while smoke emits from an incense dispenser behind them. A statue of Venus is in the background to the left. The painting portrays the complexity of the seduction of Helen, and conflicted feeling of rationalism and eros.

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789) -the painting was initially unveiled at the Salon in Paris. It tells the story of Lucius Junius Brutus (not the killer of Caesar) who overthrew the old kings of Rome and established the Republic. His sons are being returned after they conspired to overthrow the Republic. Brutus ordered their killing. Again, the theme of civic virtue over family ties emerges.

Le_Serment_du_Jeu_de_paumeThe Tennis Court Oath Drawing (1792) -the motion of the painting dramatizes the famous Tennis Court Oath, with all praising Bailly at the center, the mayor of Paris until he was guillotined in 1793. Also in the center is a Catholic monk shaking hands with a protestant pastor, symbolizing a new era of religious tolerance. One man sits in opposition to the Tennis Court Oath in the lower right-handside. This sketch was never completed during David’s lifetime. The sketch portrays a kind of naive optimism about the revolution, as many in the painting would soon fall victim to the guillotine-hungry mob.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_Marat_assassinated_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Death of Marat (1793) -David was a friend of Marat and visited his residence only the day before his murder. Recall, Marat was a Jacobin revolutionary thinker and journalist. He suffered from a skin condition, thus why he spent many of his working hours in a tub. He is portrayed in the painting in ideal form without blemish and only one small cut wound. The painting portrays a martyr, killed by Charlotte Cordray, a Girondin sympathizer (a more conservative Jacobin faction that was concerned with the spiraling nature of the revolution). Cordray was later captured and guillotined in 1793. Note, “The Death of Marat” has often been compared to Michelangelo’s Pietà. Note the elongated arm hanging down in both works. David admired Caravaggio’s works, especially Entombment of Christ, which mirrors The Death of Marat’s drama and light. The letter in his hand reads: “Given that I am unhappy, I have a right to your help” with the name of Charlotte Cordray written above in 1793, showing her mischievous tactic to enter his room. David’s name is displayed prominently below Marat’s.

The_Intervention_of_the_Sabine_WomenThe Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) -the painting was initially created while David was imprisoned in the Luxembourg Palace in 1795. The painting was intended to inspire a return to normalcy, for people to embrace love over the madness of the revolution. David was imprisoned by a counter-insurgency in Europe in response to the lunacy of the Reign of Terror -David was imprisoned as a former supporter of Robespierre. It depicts the legendary Hersilia, wife of Romulus and daughter of Titus Tatius, leader of the Sabines. She has placed herself and her babies between the two warring men. The legendary Tarpeian Rock appears in the background, an analog to the guillotine since the ancient Roman punishment for treason was to be thrown from the rock. It received its name from the Vestal Virgin Tarpeia (a priestess of Vesta, the chaste goddess, hence “Vestal Virgin”) for she opened the gates for the Sabines to enter believing they would give their riches of gold bracelets on their arms, but instead they trampled and crushed her to death. Tarpeia was then thrown from the rock which bore her name, hence the origins of the story. In the painting the rock juts out to the right from the citadel. The women and children in the painting are the bearers of reason and peace, stopping the maddening violence.

The Coronation of Napoleon (1805-1807) Napoleon is dressed in coronation robes similar to those of Roman emperors, crowning himself.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Emperor_Napoleon_in_His_Study_at_the_Tuileries_-_Google_Art_Project_2The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (1812)

Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801) -Bonaparte is shown triumphantly crossing the alps, his right hand ungloved. Bonaparte, Hannibal, and Charlemagne are all inscribed in the rocks of the alps below Napoleon, connecting the three imperial conquerors.

1 thought on “Case Study: Neoclassicism, “The Death of Socrates”

  1. Pingback: On the Significance of the Death of Socrates | Great Books Guy

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