Great Paintings: The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David
A political work of art that draws on the values of classical antiquity
A man lies collapsed in a bath, his head wrapped in a swathe of bandages, a knife wound in his chest. In one hand a letter, in the other a quill pen recently dipped in ink. In the bottom left corner, the bloodied implement of his murder…
It is a striking work of art: simple, silent, tragic. I think one of the great successes of the work is that one can experience it before beginning to wonder what it’s trying to say.
Before I could answer that question, what impressed me — what still impresses me — was the theatrical boldness of the scene, as if a moment from a play had been captured in paint. I remain moved by the cool, sober coloring and sparse rectilinear structure of the composition.
When I first saw this painting, I was especially taken with the detail of the green blanket that covers the bath, which forms a horizontal rectangle that echoes the nocturnal shadows of the background. And then the upturned wooden box for a makeshift table, this time a vertical rectangle interrupting the green at right-angles.
These geometrical patterns give the work a sense of strict order that, I think, has rarely been matched in the history of painting. You might go as far as to say that the image is beautiful, until you come to consider the subject matter.
And so the more you look at this painting, the more perplexing it becomes. The elements of murder-mystery give way to notions of strangeness: a man dead in a bath, a dignified but upsetting scene, a letter in his hand. What exactly is going on here?
Martyr of the Revolution
The painting is based on a real-life murder, the political assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was a journalist and political radical during the French Revolution. He was a vocal defender of the lower classes and published his fervent views in pamphlets and newspapers. In his personal life, he suffered from a severe skin condition which he eased by taking regular medicinal baths.
At a time of great social upheaval, which would ultimately lead to the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of a republic, Marat won many admirers — not least the artist David — and also many rivals. One revolutionary faction, the Girondins, though in favor of removing the monarchy, were unhappy with the spiraling momentum of the Revolution. Marat became one of their targets. On the night of the 13th July 1793, Charlotte Corday, a sympathizer of the Girondins, entered Marat’s chambers with a 6-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest whilst he lay in his bath. She was quickly arrested and executed by guillotine four days later.
The piece of paper in Marat’s hand is the letter that Corday used to gain admission to see Marat. The letter reads (translated into in English)
July 13., 1793
Marie anne Charlotte
Corday to the citizen
My great unhappiness
gives me a Right
to your kindness
The painting, then, captures the aftermath of a political murder, one in which the victim has been deceived into welcoming his assassin. Jacques-Louis David has created the image with the explicit intention of valorizing Marat, of turning his death into a political martyrdom.
Classical principles of style
Every care has been taken to glamorize the subject. David was a painter from the Neoclassical school. The emphasis of this school was on principles of simplicity and harmony, drawing inspiration from the “classical” art and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity. To evoke such antecedents was a rhetorical statement as much as it was about learning from the past: a representation of a noble event through noble artistic principles.
Born in 1748, David was the most prominent member of the Neoclassical school. His painting style marked a turning point in the history of French art, away from the pleasure-seeking, game-playing traditions of Rococo and towards the more austere idealism of the classical world. His first decisive painting, the Oath of the Horatii (1784) was immediately recognized as a landmark in painting, and in its theme celebrated the virtues of the early Roman Republic.
David’s style was apt for the depiction of modern-day heroes. Death of Marat is a memorial painting, adorned with the simple tribute from the artist engraved on the upturned box, À MARAT, DAVID.
David was also known to have admired Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ, from which the gracefully hanging arm was a likely source of inspiration. It is not an exaggeration to say that David painted Marat with a deliberate attempt to evoke a Christ-like figure.
In his Death of Marat, David has employed a direct and uncompromising style. The vantage point is straight-on. There are no additional details, of setting, time of day, or anything that tells us of the man’s status or background. Like Caravaggio’s Christ, all we have is the semi-naked figure of a tragic martyr.
To witness how stark David’s style is, it is useful to compare another painting of Marat’s murder. In 1860, Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry painted a version of the murder in which Charlotte Corday is also included (see below): in this work there is a different sort of drama, more active and present, more chaotic. The space of the bathroom is clearly described; a window lights the space from the right, and Charlotte Corday is shown as the main character.
In comparison, the mood of David’s work emerges more clearly as a precise combination of tenderness and lucidity: human pathos with geometrical planning. Few works of art achieve the same potency in such a pared-down, structured style.
The poet Baudelaire wrote of the painting, “The drama is here, vivid in its pitiful horror. This painting is David’s masterpiece and one of the great curiosities of modern art because, by a strange feat, it has nothing trivial or vile … This work contains something both poignant and tender; a soul is flying in the cold air of this room, on these cold walls, around this cold funerary tub.”