Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Bite 96: Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Marat, 1793

The Death of Marat1793, oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm, Musées des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Following the assassination of the radical revolutionary journalist Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday on July 13th 1793, a deputy of the National Convention (along with David) proclaimed “He sacrificed himself for liberty. Our eyes look for him amongst us. O terrible spectacle, he is on his deathbed! Where are you David? You have transmitted to posterity the image of Le Pelletier, dying for his country, there remains a picture for you to do.” To which David called out in the Convention: “I will do it too.”

The resulting work, The Death of Marat was presented to the Convention to be exhibited alongside The Death of Le Pelletier (original since lost) just four months later. It is considered by many art historians to be the single greatest political painting ever conceived. A triumph of the Neoclassical style its simplicity and distillation of feeling is profound considering the haste in which it was painted. The design has an air of concentration and finality usually resulting from a process of prolonged elimination and a pondering of every detail – David’s usual practice. 

Although murdered in his bathtub, where he regularly worked due to a painful skin condition, David has managed to imbue Marat with an idealised dignity and saintly air where other lesser artists would have been embarrassed by the circumstances. Somewhat reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta, particularly with the elongated arm over the side of the bath, and Zurbaran’s St. Serapion from 1628, from which David has been influenced by the pale colouring and the solemn tilt of the head; the figure of Marat seems cast in porcelain, the grisly scene reduced to a ‘ladylike’ stabbing and some dashes of blood. 

David is bringing all of the might of his great skills as a painter to the role of airbrushing a tyrant of history. Holding a pen in one hand and the letter by which Corday was admitted entrance in the other, the viewer is simultaneously reminded both of David's role as journalist, ‘extoller of liberty’, and the ‘conniving, treacherous’ method by which the ‘Angel of Assassination’ murdered the ‘Friend of the People’. The solid box with Marat and David’s names immortalised, pronounces an unyielding truth while the dagger nearby still glistens with the blood of a martyr. 

The result is a masterpiece – understated, stark and profoundly poignant - not least due to David’s Winckelmannesque decision to remove all distractions from the background - including the crossed muskets on the wall - merely painting a faint light coming from the top right into the darkness of the picture conveying a sense of eternity and immortality.

 As successful as it is, however, the image is still no more than propaganda, if moving and deeply disturbing propaganda at that - using subject matter to convey an exceptionally morally-questionable idea. For the truly disturbing thing about this image is its service of art in the intense communication of a great lie. 

Charlotte Corday proclaimed “I killed one man to save 100,000” and this is easily the case. Marat was a radical tyrant who, as an orchestrator of the Terror, ordered the guillotining of any and all ‘detractors’ of the revolution. In an image of propaganda like no other David has presented this malevolent man as a Christ-like dying hero, Marat the martyr. To put it simply, as Simon Schama does, the image is “shockingly, lethally beautiful.”

K. Clark, The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus Classic Art. (London: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd., 1973), 30.  
D. Irwin, Neoclassicism (Art & Ideas), (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1997), 252. 
Simon Schama, Power of Art, 235.