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Art critic

Updated on February 6, 2015

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

Introduction

The piece depicts a group of people, with an old man (Socrates) being the central figure. Dressed in a light robe, sited in bed, Socrates is stretching his right arm to reach for a cub he is being handed over by a young man, and the other hand gesturing high in the air. The young man is standing next to the bed, his face in his free hand. Behind Socratus there are a few men of various age who are distressed and try to talk to the seated man. Next to the bed, there is a young man seated on a stone stool looking at Socratus and holding his lap. At the foot of the bed is another elderly man, also dressed in white, sitting on a stool, facing away and dropping his face to look at his laps. The background depicts a brick wall with an arched hallway, with a man leaning next to the wall, with his face dropped and arms risen above his head, further down the hall there are men leaving the room.

The Death of Socrates is a picture drawn by Jacques-Louis David in the year 1787. It is a characteristic Renaissance piece of art that was designed by a master of art. The piece is an oil on canvas painting that utilises several colours and is carefully finished giving it a Sprezzatura effect despite having major artistic details. It depicts the distress of Socrates disciples and Plato at the time just before Socrates’ vitrus act of drinking hemlock after he was sentenced to death for his iconoclasm. The piece is a real disegno created out of the mare description by a masterly use of different artistic techniques, particularly colour, lighting, and pose to depict the distress that existed at the moment of the death of Socrates.

Composition, pose and proportion

The arrangements of the picture mostly employs perspective well. The far placed persons are reduced in size, while the persons closest to the focal point are bigger. For instance, the distressed boy leaning on the wall is significantly reduced in size as compared to the young man handing the cup of hemlock to Socrates. However, the size of the sitting Socrates is in discord with the rest of the picture. Although it may have been done intentionally to create a focal point, his size is not diminishing with distance. For instance, his hands are slightly bigger than those of the young man handing the cup; his right hand seems to be diminishing towards the fingers despite them being the closest, his head seems to be prospectively bigger and closer than that of the sitting man who hold his lap. Despite this small anomaly, the piece is naturally combining static and dynamic motions, thereby depicting a real life situation.

The proportion of the men in the background and the main picture combined with the orthogonal lines of the one-point perspective hallway makes the background appear realistic and natural. David uses the background masterly to create a more natural setting, which makes the piece more believable. The figures in the picture are tensed, the disciples next to Socrates seem to be trying to convince him to reconsider his decision. The boy handing the hemlock puts his face into his free hand, - an indication that he does not like what he is doing, but has not much of a choice. The boy leaning on the wall is distressed and overwhelmed by emotions, while Plato sits by himself, grieved but understanding the decision of Socrates to have a dignified death defending his beliefs. Socrates, in contrast, is trying to teach his disciples a last lesson evident from his raised hand and authoritative pose. Basically, the people in the artwork are all directly or indirectly focused on the action of Socrates.

Lines

In paintings, lines are often used to communicate the perspective and the relationships between separate elements. In this piece, David predominantly uses straight subtle lines and uses curves only when necessary. He uses a combination of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The folds on the robes are drawn majorly using straight vertical and diagonal lines. The background is drawn using a mixture of vertical and horizontal lines and some diagonal lines in the pathway. The diagonal lines are vanishing to create a one-point perspective of the hallway. The bricks, depicted by the horizontal and vertical lines, also help create a one-point perspective as the bricks on the floor, which are closest to the focal point, are bigger than those farthest In addition, the bricks on the wall are of the same width, indicating that it is a flat surface.

Space and texture

The picture makes attempts to tell us about the space of the setting: the pose of the disciple facing away from Socrates suggests that she is at the edge of the room. The shadow of the bed tells that the bed is in not leaned to the wall, and the lighting from presumably a hole in the roof indicates that this is a high roof room. The lighting around Socrates indicates that he is in a more secluded position, which points to his authority, while the dull lighting around the disciples indicates that they are the secondary subjects. The chain on the floor suggests that this is a prison cell.

The shading of the surfaces indicates a smooth surface. The stones on the walls are dull but smooth. The texture of the fabrics is also smooth but not shiny.

Size

The size of the individuals in the piece is proportional to the human figure. Their size compared to the bricks on the wall indicates that they are normal sized human beings. The size of the Socrates’ bed is also proportional and realistic to the size of the people around it, and so is the hallway. Basically, the piece has been done proportionately to create a sense of reality.

Light and Colour

David used a combination of colour and light to create the desired effect of the painting. He uses bright robes for Plato and Socrates, which convey a serene mood and suggest that the two actually understand Socrates’ actions. The disciples have red robes, which enhances the distressed mood. The lighting of the room is bright around Socrates and the man handing the cup and smoothly fading to the edges of the picture. The grooming red of the young man handing the cup to Socrates indicates a higher level of distress than among the disciples situated further. As such, the lighting of the room conveys a concentration of the emotions being conveyed. The robe of Socrates is also brighter than that of Plato, hinting that Plato is grieved, while Socrates may be actually excited about the event.

Mood

Distress and grief are the predominant moods in this painting. The disciples of Socrates are distressed, which is well-conveyed by their poses and the colour of their robes. The picture also conveys a mood of grief through the pose of Plato and the boy leaning on the wall. The disciple facing away from Socrates’ bed is also grieving, and so is the disciple next to the sited young man who has his face in his hands. The disciples are obviously grieved by the about-to-happen death of their mentor.

Conclusion

Jacques-Louis David carefully uses colours and lighting to bring forth the mood of the painting. The combination of carefully selected colours and density of lighting communicates the intensity of the emotions of the individuals in the painting. David further enhances this with the pose of different characters to further emphasize their emotions. He employs a combination of lines, texture and lighting to create an illusion of the space and effectively communicate the nature of the setting of the drawing. In a nutshell, Davideffortlessly uses artistic features to create a Sprezzatura piece that communicates a lot to the viewer.


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