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This painting has an interesting story behind it. Jean-Paul Marat, who happened to be Jacques Louis David's personal friend, was a highly popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist during the French Revolution.
His journalism was famous for its fierce tone and its hard-line stance on most key issues at the time, such as advocating for basic human rights for the poor and being very uncompromising towards the leaders and institutions. Towards the end of his life, he was arguably the most radical voice of the French Revolution.
Well, on the Saturday evening of 13th July 1793 in Paris, Jean-Paul Marat happened to be taking a medicinal bath which helped with his skin disease. A woman called Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, walked into his room with a knife and planed it into his chest. She had bought the knife in a nearby store earlier that day, and convinced that Marat was an agitator that needed to die, she made up her mind to do the deed. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday was arrested almost immediately after the death of Marat and was executed only four days later by guillotine on 17th July 1793.
After the assassination, the National Convention commissioned Jacques Louis David, who was the most prominent artist then, to paint Marat. The Death of Marat is a 128 x 165cm oil on canvas painting.
Jacques Louis David was a Neoclassical artist, so one would have expected something that made reference to classical antiquity or the Romans. However, he took a very different direction with The Death of Marat. In essence, it is the painting of a contemporary subject in a contemporary setting. Jacques Louis David said he did this because he wanted to show people the condition in which he found Marat. However, he took a few liberties in his portrayal, and therefore the painting is not meant to be an exact photographic replica of what happened. For example, when he was murdered, Marat died with the knife impaled in his chest. The painting shows the knife on the floor, and Marat bleeding to death from his wounds. Marat is portrayed as a classical hero, having died while writing defending the well-being of the people.
The portrait limits the recognizability of Jean-Paul Marat, making him stand out even more like the hero of the story. There is also no other subject anywhere to be seen, meaning all the attention is given to Marat lying there in his tub. The absence of a room of any sort, or any clothes or costumes to help the viewer date the scene further makes the painting timeless. Jacques Louis David intentionally included evidences of Marat's revolutionary activity in the form of the writing materials, a representation of his battle for the people's rights in the form of the letter, evidence of his suffering represented by the bath, and the heroic death of a martyr represented by the bloody knife on the floor. All these symbols put together show that Marat was a hero who was willing to lay down his life for what he believed in.
The Death of Marat takes a few clear influences from Michelangelo's and Caravaggio's works. For example, you can see the elongated hanging arm in both Michelangelo's Pieta and the Death of Marat. From Caravaggio's Entombment of Christ, Jaques Louis David clearly borrows the drama and light techniques and implements them in The Death of Marat. The painting's composition is arranged according to the golden section, which is a classical principle. There are clear horizontal and vertical lines, along with the fact that the painting is almost perfectly divided into two halves: one lower half with Marat and the objects around him, and a neutral upper half.
The work is also highly symbolic, painted with the sole goal of making the subject look like an innocent martyr and hero. Nothing is painted for decoration purposes. Every single detail has a purpose, down to the smallest detail such as the date of his death and the name of the murderer on the piece of paper he is holding.
The scene in the painting has been carefully planned. It almost looks like a theatrically staged death. Everything else fades to the background, and we are presented with an idealized version of Marat and what he stood for and eventually died for. The skin condition he suffered from is nowhere to be seen. His body is illuminated by some kind of divine light from the left with no discernable source form the painting itself. The subject is lifeless and the entire scene is monumental, down to David's signature and his dedication of the painting to Marat being depicted as a stone engraving on a monument.
David rendered the body of Marat as a detailed solid form. All his muscles are visible, and there are careful considerations that have been made on the choice of colors. For example, when you look at the right hand, you will notice that the back part of the arm is fully lit, darkening gradually to browns as you move to the right. This makes the form appear rounder and more realistic, a technique that is only easily achieved by using oil paints as David did here.
The Death of Marat is currently owned by the Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, where it can be viewed. A few related paintings include the Oath of the Horatii by the same artist, which was one of the paintings that defined the French Neoclassical style, and the George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, painted at around the same time hundreds of miles away. The paintings of Jacques Louis David greatly influenced the 18th to the 19th Century art scene. He was influenced by Francois Boucher and Joseph Marie Vien, and in turn, he influenced such great names as Antoine-Jean Gros and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who all took after his neo-classical style.
Compare and contrast the styles of Jacques Louis David with other European artists from in around this period to understand more about where his own work fits amongst the overall oeuvre of this continent's art. Check out the likes of Goya, Vermeer, El Greco and William Turner.