Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David
Interpretation of Neoclassical History Painting

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The Death of Marat.
By Jacques-Louis David.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Death of Marat (1793)


Analysis and Interpretation
• Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings


Name: Death of Marat (1793) (Marat Assassiné)
Artist: Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting
Style: Neoclassical art
Location: Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels

For an interpretation of other celebrated oils and watercolours, please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For help in assessing works
by Neoclassical artists
like Jacques-Louis David,
please see: Art Evaluation.

Analysis of Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David

The most influential figure in French painting during the three decades of the Revolutionary period in France (c.1785-1815), Jacques-Louis David exemplified the new style of Neoclassicism as well as the didactic nature of academic art, championed by the French Academy. Winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome (1774), his three early masterpieces - Oath of the Horatii (1785, Louvre, Paris), Death of Socrates (1787, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789, Louvre, Paris) - mark the apogee of Neoclassical painting in France. He is best-known however for his propagandist painting Death of Marat (1793), which transformed a violent and ruthless revolutionary into a political martyr. Following the execution of his protector Robespierre (1758-94), David was briefly imprisoned before being rehabilitated under The Directory (1795-99). However he soon transferred his allegiance to Napoleon Bonaparte, eventually becoming official painter to the new regime, which showered him with honours. His best works of this period include Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and Madame Recamier (1800, Louvre, Paris). After Napoleon's fall in 1815, David went into self-imposed exile in Brussels. Influenced by such people as Johann Winckelmann (1717-68) as well as Raphael Mengs (1728-79) he was the last of the great Old Masters to leave behind a firm group of followers - sometimes known as the 'School of David' - who included Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824), Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), J.A.D. Ingres (1780–1867), and later Ernest Meissonier (1815-91).

The Death of Marat was a full-blown attempt to turn a bloodthirsty zealot into a tragic hero who was martyred for the revolutionary cause. In its focus on a contemporary political issue, the picture follows the tradition set two decades previously by Benjamin West (1738-1820), who painted The Death of General Wolfe (1770, National Gallery, Ottowa) in memory of Wolfe's demise at the Battle of Quebec (1759). David had already essayed a work of recent history, The Tennis Court Oath (1790-94, Musee National du Chateau de Versailles), but was unable to finish it because of the changing political climate. In particular, the revolutionary "unity" it was supposed to portray, no longer existed; and many "revolutionary heroes" were, by 1793, seen as traitors to the cause. The same can be said for Marat, whose posthumous reputation declined significantly as the Revolution developed. However, David's talent as a political painter, well versed in both Hellenistic art and High Renaissance art, has endowed The Death of Marat with an life of its own, quite independent from Marat's reputation in real life.

NOTE: For a different approach to contemporary history painting, see: The Third of May, 1808 (1814, Prado, Madrid) by Goya.



The background facts are not in dispute. On 13 July 1793, the Swiss agitator, journalist and self-styled physician Jean-Paul Marat (1743-93) - one of the architects of the September Massacres (1792) and the Reign of Terror - was stabbed to death in his bath by a young Girondist, Charlotte Corday. Corday had gained entrance to Marat's house by pretending to offer him a list of counter-revolutionaries living in her home town of Caen. At the end of her fifteen minute interview, Marat thanked her and promised that the traitors would be executed the following week, whereupon Corday pulled out a 5-inch kitchen knife and plunged it into his chest, severing the carotid artery. The massive bleeding would have been fatal within seconds. (She made no attempt to flee and was guillotined a few days later.) In real-life, Marat was (by most accounts) an embittered, suspicious and self-righteous journalist. At the time of his assassination he was one of the leaders of the Montagnards - the radical group who controlled the Committee of Public Safety.

Unfortunately for him - but fortunately for Corday - he had a skin condition (perhaps dermatitis herpetiformis) that caused him to itch constantly, for which the only palliative was immersion in a bath. He also wore a 'turban' soaked in vinegar to reduce the discomfort on his scalp. Because of this he regularly used his bathroom as an office and spent much of his time in his bathtub writing out long lists of suspects to be tried and executed. The painting depicts Marat in the final moments of his life, shortly after being stabbed.

The Death of Marat immortalized Marat as a martyr and hero of the people, and rapidly became an iconic image of the French Revolution. David achieved this by harnessing all the features commonly used in religious paintings of the lamentation of Christ, or scenes of Christian martyrdom.

To begin with, he removes all trace of the ornate decor of Marat's grand bathroom. In its place, he creates a sort of austere theatrical set with a darkened void as a background, against which Marat is presented to the audience. His head sinks back and his face is bathed in a soft, glowing light. With a sweet, beatific smile on his lips, his last breath escapes. His pose, as well as the knife-wound just below his collarbone, both recall paintings of Jesus after being cut down from the cross. A quill drops from his hand; the bloody knife lies nearby. Adapting his composition from the traditional style of the pieta - see, for example, Pieta (1500, St Peter's Basilica, Rome) by Michelangelo - David transforms a messy, chaotic assassination into an icon of peaceful martyrdom. He has amended and edited the truth so carefully that nothing rings false. Although a withered invalid in life, Marat has been given long muscular arms in death. His right arm is left dangling in a manner reminiscent of Jesus in The Entombment of Christ (1601-3, Vatican Museums) by Caravaggio. His oozing skin is now smooth and unblemished.

His assassin's letter which he holds in his left hand - and which in reality never existed - reads: "July 13, 1793. Marieanne Charlotte Cordray to Citizen Marat. Because I am unhappy I have the right to call on your goodwill." David thus creates the illusion that Marat kept open house to redress grievances. Futhermore, on the top of the rough crate which serves as his table (another piece of propaganda), instead of seeing lists of candidates for execution (the usual paperwork), we see a letter he has supposedly just written ordering money to be given to a war widow, the mother of five children whose husband has just sacrificed his life for 'La Patrie'. Another sentimental lie.

First shown in the Louvre in October 1793, the painting was given to the republican National Convention the following month. David delivered an accompanying speech that was as verbose as his picture was simple, stating his belief that the image of this martyr for liberty would endure forever. And he was right, The Death of Marat is one of his most memorable images. In assuring his audience that Marat really did look like the dead Christ, he deliberately deluded them about the nature and character of his subject. In this sense he adapted the tried-and-true methods of propagandists everywhere.

Although widely admired during the Terror (1793-4) - the original was hung in the assembly hall of the National Convention of Deputies, and radical leaders ordered copies, including engravings, to be made and used as propaganda - the painting's relevance soon declined. Indeed by 1795, Marat had fallen from favour and the picture was returned to David at his own request. In due course, David gained a new role as an apologist and propagandist for Napoleon. His fine images of Napoleon represent propaganda through grandeur, but none of them combine personal affection, direct experience, knowledge of art, and mastery of his medium with the deftness, conviction, and richness that underlie The Death of Marat. After Napoleon's fall and the restoration of the monarchy, David went into exile in Belgium. Despite many invitations, he never returned to France. After his death the painting was largely ignored until it was 'rediscovered' by art critics some 20 years later.

Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Louvre, Paris; Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

Wurzburg Residence Frescoes (1750-3) by Tiepolo.
Wurzburg Palace.

The Swing (L'Escarpolette) (1767) by Jean-Honore Fragonard.
Wallace Collection, London.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby.
National Gallery, London.

The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli.
Detroit Institute of Arts.


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