The everlasting impact of Jacque-Louis David’s The Death of Marat on politics and right to free speech
The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David and its Impact on the Free Speech
In our introduction, we shall focus on the painting itself. That is: how was it elaborated; the reasons we chose the painting; its current location; its style and the technique used; and when it was finished. We consider that speaking about the painting, before speaking about its implications and impact would be of greater importance, since by understanding the painting’s origin we would be able to establish parallelisms and connections between it and our prospective subject.
Painting elaboration. The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David, is an oil on canvas painting done in the year of 1793.
Reasons for choosing that particular painting. In this paper, we aim to size the importance of the death of Marat to the revolutionary France; also, we also intend to assess how, and on which ways, the painting can talk about the impact of Jacques-Louis David work regarding the free speech. This painting, besides being a stunning example of neoclassic art, serves its purpose of conveying its message of turning Marat into a hero of classic proportions. Marat’s death, in the highest point of his career, serves to attest to how it is possible for a person to accomplish so much, yet die at any instant. The painting speaks to us about the inevitability of death, and the dangerous times he lived in. To attest his death, serves us to understand what he fought, and eventually died for.
Painting’s current location. Currently, the painting is located at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
Style and Technique used. David was a neoclassic painter. Neoclassicism is a rediscovery of the classic Greek and Roman art. We say rediscovery, because unlike the renaissance art, who was a sort of re-appropriation of the classic forms, the neoclassicism not necessarily intended to recreate the classics but to study them. The old methods employed by the masters of the past were taught by teachers in academies and the same teachers urged their students to assimilate the technical prowess of the classic and renaissance masters (Gombrich 362). Most neoclassic painters.
On the other hand, the attraction toward the classics also made the prospective patrons more inclined toward the classic art, instead of promoting the neoclassic artists, this inspired many painters to start using melodramatic subjects to draw attention to their art. David’s technique is more inclined to using sober and dark tones, in The Death of Marat, the brilliant colors are in the white of the clothing; the green of the bathtub; and the brownish-yellow on the table. However, what draws our attention is the side table that serves as a metaphorical gravestone. We can observe the classical influence the painter sported when we see Marat’s marble-like skin. We are watching a painting about a murder, but it does not look like it. The composition is done according the golden section, a classical principle of horizontal and vertical lines that serve frame the image and draw the spectator’s attention to where the painter intended.
When was the painting finished? The painting was finished in 1793, it was first exhibited alongside with Le Peletier in the Louvre Museum. Nevertheless, Le Peletier was destroyed in 1826, and The Death of Marat has subsisted as one of the most known works of David. (Vaughan & Weston 17)
Who is Jacques-Louis David? David was one of the most famous neoclassic painters. We will talk about both his life as a painter and as a revolutionary, friend of Robespierre, and Marat. David rose to fame after being commissioned by Louis XVI to paint The Oath of the Horatii. In that painting, David was able to paint a neoclassic masterpiece, where the Roman elements of the painting fuse with the new conventions explored by the neoclassicism. The Oath of the Horatii represented what was to come, the virtue of the heroes passed to the young generations (Anistoriton Journal 1). Historians also said that the painter defied the king’s expectations, who had asked for a square salon painting of about ten feet for each side but received a painting who had more horizontal length, and that was not completed in the specified amount of time. This speaks of the non-conformist nature of David.
Concerning his participation during the Revolution, and the role he played in it, we can say that David was part of the Jacobins, along with Robespierre and Marat. He held many power positions related to culture and cultural promotion and orchestrated many festivals in the Revolutionary France. (Vaughan & Weston 12).
When Marat was murdered, David was president of the Jacobin Club. According to historical recounts, he had seen Marat that week, and when was asked to paint Marat, he recalled him as he had seen him, not like he was. In the painting, we see an idealized Marat, a man who died for his beliefs. (Lenzi 4). Marat tended to depict his models like heroes, like flawless and timeless bodies who are there to inspire, to generate awe, which we can see as a reminiscence of the Renaissance style of depicting religious figures. In 1793, he voted for the king’s death, and attested for his antipathy to the queen Marie Antoinette, as he depicted her in a drawing he made when the queen passed under his windows on the way to the guillotine. He was also part of the Committee of General Security, in charge of promoting social reforms and prosecuting counterrevolutionaries and antirevolutionaries. Marat was not a man keen on honoring people, but used their deaths as a way to convey the three principles of the French Republic: Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality. (Vaughan & Weston 13)
Regarding David’s influence on the transition from Rococo to Neoclassical, we might say that the journey the painter did to Italy during his youth greatly influenced him, and his pictorial production. For instance, for a painter who grew surrounded by the French Rococo style, seeing the magnificence of Italian art, must have been quite liberating. The shortcomings of his formation revealed as he studied the vigorous chiaroscuro employed by the Italian masters, so different than those his teacher had showed him. Upon seeing this, David steadily grew apart from Vien, his teacher, and renounced to the affected mannerisms of Vien’s school. He would later use a neutral palette, opposed to his teacher’s pastel tones. David used the chiaroscuro frequently, to add dimension to his paintings. In the same way, David returned to the naturalism and unlike Vien, painted his models in complex anatomical poses. (Martin 42). David was not only interested in the aesthetics of the painting, as most of his compositions have also a psychological component that separates them from the Rococo style, who was interested in the subject qualities, rather than what was being depicted.
Who is Jean-Paul Marat? Marat was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland. His father was a Sardinian chemist, and her mother was a Genevois woman. According to Bax, he left his house at the age of sixteen to pursue his studies in medicine. After wandering aimlessly, he arrived in Paris where he pursued his studies in medicine, and after some time employed as a scientific researcher, he migrated to London, where he spent a substantial amount of his life, working in the medical field, and earning a reputation as a respected researcher. He even wrote essays on philosophy, physiology, and translated the Newton’s Opticks to French (Bax 30). In London, he became a Freemason, something that could have put him in contact with the humanism and the pre-revolutionary ideas. In this period, he wrote “The Chains of Slavery”, an essay against despotism, and despotic governments. Marat rose as a significant member of the pre-revolutionary France, and to the Revolution. In the dawn of the Revolution, Marat wrote the Offrand a la Patrie, a sixty-two pamphlet who called for the elections for the States-General, a body who superseded the king’s authority in order to restructure the country and stave the bankruptcy (Bax Chapter 5). Soon after, he founded his magazine “Le Ami du Peuple”, that granted him with the popularity that followed him for the rest of his life. Marat was not a political, nor a philosopher, he was primarily a polemicist, a demagogue, his detractors would say. He did not write systematically, he wrote for the effect he knew his writings could achieve. However, his ideology was one of the most important influences on the Revolutionary thought. We can even trace some Rousseaunian thinking in Marat’s works. He believed that people were good and capable if they were not corrupted by power; he also believed in the efficacy of popular violence and civilian control, as he believed that the powers were corrupted and civilians have to seek justice by their own means. (Najdek 13). As we can see, the ideals of fraternity, and liberty stem from the zeal Marat had toward keeping the French society free of the control of those who oppressed the, Regarding his death, his assassin, Charlotte Corday planned on assassinating him on the Convention, presided by David at that time, but since Marat was unable to go, as he was still suffering from his skin decease, Charlotte invented a pretext and march onwards to the writer’s house. She acted as an informant to the Revolutionary government, and after giving her information, she stabbed the man in the chest. Since his enemies were not capable of corrupting hi, they decided on killing him. (Bax Chater 9). In the painting, we can see a letter from his assassin that says “Il suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir droit a votre bienveillance”, which means “My great unhappiness gives me a right to your kindness”.
Parallelisms between The Death of Marat and Michelangelo’s Pieta. David’s painting depicts a rather simple composition, but it has been carefully arranged. The painting almost looks like a frieze and provides a rigid structure for Marat’s body. There are two indications that Marat is dead: The first, the limpness of his arm, still clutching his assailant’s letter, and his head, sagging downwards. We stated before that one of David’s major influences was the classicism and the renaissance painting. We can see that he tried to recreate what he saw in many religious paintings, which featured Christ’s passion, or any other religious theme that included martyrdom. In this sense, we observe that he intended to make Marat a martyr of the revolution, a man who selflessly did the best he considered, and gave the French a new horizon, killed by his enemies. Very much like the martyrs, who died for their beliefs. In Michelangelo’s Pieta, we see the same atmosphere of martyrdom, the same abandonment. David even copied the limpness of the arms and the position of the head. The difference lies that in the Michelangelo’s sculpture, the virgin is the witness and has her own share of her son’s pain. In the painting, David aims to convey that pain, that abandonment, by cleverly using the chiaroscuro and the dramatic of Marat’s pose. Its lifeless picture of tranquility, as if he was a saint, a man who did the ultimate sacrifice for his country, a secular Christ. In the same way, the picture also shows other religious elements, such as the turban, and the angelic expression on the man’s face. As if he died knowing he would reach a place of eternal rest. Marat’s portrait highly contrasts with the living Marat, who was depicted as a violent man who supported any kind of repression if it meant ensuring local order.
Marat lived and died as a revolutionary, there is no doubt in that, and David’s painting stays as one of the most important, yet not totally faithful recounts of his life. The Death of Marat has always been a controversial picture, who provokes awe in ones and revulsion in others. Marat was depicted as a tyrant, and a brute by friends and enemies not so long after his death. However, the historical figure of Marat is still alive, and his painting served as a light on which many people had encountered that glimpse of revolution they wanted. On the other hand, people’s political beliefs might tend to get in the way when thinking and speaking about the painting. It is possible that a right-wing person emphasizes the human dimensions of the painting; the drama and the composition, whereas a left-wing person who observes it, could emphasize the revolutionary nature of the painting, and celebrate that someone did the biggest sacrifice for his ideals (Vaughan & Weston 18). Vilified or not, to us, the painting remains as a symbol of a time long gone, a time who helped shaping the destinies of most modern-day nations. If it was not for Marat, it is possible that the Revolution would not have been what it was, we must be thankful for what his implications on reforming a country, and despite we dislike many of his methods, we praise his willing to educate an otherwise ignorant population. The painting itself conveys what David wanted, and after almost 230 years, it still does, as it serves as a beacon of dedication and revolutionary spirit that must never end.
Bax, E. Jean-Paul Marat, the People’s Friend;. 2d ed. London: G. Richards, 1901. Online.
“Jacques-Louis David: Artistic Interpretation in Tumultuous Times.” Anistoriton Journal 11 (2009). Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Lenzi, C. “Jacques-Louis David: Artistic Interpretation in Tumultuous Times.” Anistoriton Journal 11 (2008): 1-7. Web. <http://www.anistor.gr/english/enback/2008_2s_Anistoriton.pdf>.
Najdek, C. “Revolutionizing Rousseau: An Analysis of the Political Thought of Jean-Paul Marat, Georges Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre.” Master’s Thesis (2008). University of North Carolina. Web.
Martin, E “The Influence Of Caravaggio on Jacques-Louis David’s Development Of French Neoclassical Painting.” Master’s Thesis (2003). University of Georgia. Web.
V, William & H Weston. Jacques-Louis David’s Marat. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Online.
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