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Death of Socrates - Jacques Louis David

Updated on September 25, 2008

The formal and compositional means Jacques Louis David employs to explore the tension between the will of the individual and duty to the state in the Death of S

Condemned of corrupting the young people of Athens and disrespecting the Gods, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock (a lethal sedative herbal mixture, employed by the Ancient Greeks to administer a peaceful death). Jacques Louis David's painting The Death of Socrates (1787), an enlightenment piece painted in the neo-classical style with a distribution of light and dark accents, is a quietly coloured piece with strong, bold lines. Simon Schama described this work as a 'boxed-in drama of speak-and-act martyrdom: speech and silence in perfect dramatic balance' meaning what, exactly?(The Power of Art, BBC Books, 2006, pg 197). Not only is a classical story being retold through art, but there is a momentous political statement being made.

Socrates continues to orate to his students even as the poison takes a slow, sinister grip of him. His students, in contrast, are in grief and seem to be taking his execution worse than the condemned man himself. His most famous student, Plato, is slumped at the bottom of his bed in a silent, sorrowful acceptance of reality. In the background of the picture, Socrates' wife and family are being escorted from the chamber as they could well become excessively emotional, with his last request being to die in thoughtful silence. The piece is a perfect example of a neoclassical painter using a famous work of classical literature, Plato's Phaedo in this case, as his muse. Better still - as an allegory upon which he based a contemporary political agenda.

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The main source of light emanates from a high left position alongside the viewer, with Socrates being illuminated brighter than all of the other figures. David has used this technique in lighting contrast to make Socrates appear almost supernatural. Working in combination with the lighting effect, David has painted Socrates with an ideally proportioned and athletic body, despite being 70 at the time of his death. This bodily characteristic portrays Socrates as a physically perfect, god-like or, again, supernatural being. This symbolism delivers a message to the viewer that nobody is above making the ultimate sacrifice. Or that it is heroic to do so.

The body language and gestures of Socrates’ pose (pointing his finger upward – referring to a higher authority/morality and being seated higher than anyone around him) demonstrates how he chooses death rather than betray his principles and live in a corrupt, therefore, meaningless society. This theme of death over the betrayal of principles is accentuated by the shackles strewn near the bed. The shackles represent a true sense of freedom that Socrates possessed at this time of martyrdom. Also the setting of a prison cell symbolises the power of the state and its ability to enforce its will.

The Death Of Socrates is not only projecting sacrifice but it is also a call to the viewer for dignity and self-control - even in the face of death. For Republican, democratic and Revolutionary contemporaries of David, the scene would conjure up memories of the recently abandoned attempt by the Ancien Régime at reform, the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, and the large number of political prisoners exiled or in King Louis XVI’s jails. David certainly intended this scene as a rebuke to the monarchy. As the Revolution was dawning on France, this picture served as a trumpet call to republican and democratic resistance to a dated and unjust authority

Further Reading... - The French reveloution and the Romantic Period

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