I am a Jacques-Louis David junkie, and always have been, from the moment I first laid eyes upon his famous Oath of the Horatii painting in an art history 101 class. In truth, I love all the Neoclassicist French painters of the 18th century, so it’s not just David that gets me going-- but David is truly tops. He’s just my jam. The way that he was able to present classically-inspired bodies and scenes is just so beautiful. And even better, the way he could hint at a wellspring of incredible emotion with just a figure’s upturned finger or painfully curled toes. And then David goes from being the best Neoclassical painter to becoming one of the best painters of the early Romantic period, jumping from one category to the next, achieving fame in portraiture and grand historical scenes. I love his works. But I’ve gotta say that some of them are a little… busy, though mostly with good reason. There’s so much going on in his monumental painting of the Coronation of Napoleon, at the Louvre today, that I can barely focus on the emperor himself, let alone anything else. And it is for this reason alone that one of my favorite works David created is the quietest in his oeuvre-- solemn, funereal, silently glorifying. But it was just these attributes, as well as the subject of this painting, that really made some viewers mad, when seeing this work for the very first time.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we’re continuing our dissection of single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, covering another painting that causes waves, even today. In this episode, we’re looking at Jacques-Louis David’s incredible painting, The Death of Marat. This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Jacques-Louis David had the trappings of the good life, so it’s no surprise that he went far, very far, in the years leading up to the French Revolution. He was born in Paris on 1748, and lived a relatively quiet childhood until the age of 9, when his father was killed in a duel and his mother, newly widowed, fell into a deep depression and determined she could no longer care for her young son. With that, she sent him to live with some rich uncles, and while that seems harsh at first, it may very well have been one of the best things that could have happened to Jacques-Louis, just because the uncles made sure that the youngster received the very best education and possible training he could have. Like many creative types, he wasn’t a really good student, mostly because he spent more time doodling in his notebooks than listening to lectures-- he was very much like his contemporary, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, in this way. He knew very early on that he wanted to paint-- and though he was met with some initial opposition from his uncles, they eventually relented, and sent him, naturally, to seek training from the very best painter of his day-- Francois Boucher, a Rococo artist famed for his flowery, over-the-top, pastel scenes inspired by romance and myths. I love this period in art, so I’m a Boucher fan as much as anything, but sometimes I gotta admit that all I think about when I think of Boucher are little tiny pink cherub butts. Seriously, Google Boucher paintings, and you’ll start seeing that there are an awful lot of rosy pink bums flying around in those things. But David wasn’t really into the whole overblown Rococo thing. He was more fascinated by the burgeoning interest, in Europe, in all things classical, all things inspired by the ancient world. And so, noticing this tendency, Boucher kindly rescinded his offer of an apprenticeship and sent David to a friend, Joseph-Marie Vien, who was a much better advocate for this new direction. And under Vien’s tutelage, David flourished.
Not that he always got what he wanted. There were some serious misses early on when David applied for the prestigious Prix de Rome, or Rome Prize, which the Royal Academy of France granted to outstanding painters so that they could have the opportunity to life and study in Rome and learn from the great arts of both the ancient and near past. For a blossoming Neoclassicist like David, it was catnip. He had to go to Rome. But each year. when he applied for the prize, he was denied. And this seriously angered him-- so much so that one year, he even went on a hunger strike as a protest to the whole academic system. Finally, on his fifth try, he succeeded in winning the prize, and set off with Vien to Rome in 1775.
In Rome, David seems to have undergone a bit of a mental backflip, and he found more inspiration in 17th century Roman artists like Caravaggio than in the ancient sculpture and relics that abound in the Eternal City. But then, things began to shift, as David spent more and more time making copies and studies of ancient sculpture, visiting the newly-excavated ruins of Pompeii, and reading philosophical treatises on the ancient world. Truly, old Rome had him in his grasp. But so did the Renaissance, and he felt a particular affinity for both Raphael and, tellingly for our tale today, Michelangelo-- he later reworked elements of one of Michelangelo’s most iconic works for his own purposes.
Twenty years after his win of the Prix de Rome, David is at the top of his game, creating indelible works of art that honored subject matter from the ancient world-- philosophers like Socrates and rulers and politicians like Lucius Brutus, and even mythological or fabled stories like the tale or warring factions in Italy in that famous Oath of the Horatii painting. But then, in 1789, the French Revolution began, and suddenly, the ancient world didn’t hold its appeal. The present, the now-- the history happening all around him-- THAT was truly incredible. And with that, David, a supporter of the Revolution, changed tacks and opted to fervently document the goings-on of his own time and place, creating indelible works of propaganda for the so-called “New French Republic.” It was a decision that seemed like a good idea at the time, but like many things associated with the French Revolution, it eventually came back to bite David.
One such work that would become a problem for David is our star of the day: a posthumous portrait of a Revolutionary leader and radical journalist and close friend to David himself: John-Paul Marat. Both David and Marat were hugely involved in revolutionary efforts - David was a member of the Jacobin Club, one of the most influential and violent group of Revolutionaries, and Marat wrote for and published L’Ami du Peuple, a Revolutionary newspaper through which propaganda was easily spread. David, like many other supporters and activists within the Revolution, looked up to Marat as a true hero, a person on what David considered the right path, a man who was both exhaustive in his efforts to change his country and to do so while living a virtuous and fearless life. But such a loud and public existence, particularly at a very unsettled time in history, meant that Marat, like so many others, was a prime target for anyone who viewed him as an enemy to their own cause. And one of those people was a woman by the name of Charlotte Corday.
Charlotte Corday was one of the many critical of the direction of the Revolution as it slid quickly into the so-called Reign of Terror, and she sided with group called the Girondins, many of whom were based in the Northwest French town of Caen, where she lived for a time. She quickly fell under the Girondin spell and was confident that their plans for the new France were correct- and that others who opposed the Girondin plans were those who were destined to throw their country into ruin. And top of her baddies list was Jean-Paul Marat. For three months, she plotted her attack against him, which finally came to fruition on July 13th, 1793. On that fateful day, Marat had originally planned to attend a public event, but things weren’t going well for him-- he suffered from a chronic skin condition that kept him in constant discomfort, and it had gotten so bad that he basically started working from home, often in his bath, where he would often spend hours at a time soaking to assuage the pain. That day, a visitor came to visit him at home, bearing a letter claiming she had information about Girondins in Caen, whom she knew Marat was opposed. She pleaded to be let in to see him and upon hearing her requests, Marat himself invited her to his room, much to the displeasure of Marat’s protective wife. Under the guise of an informant, Corday sat by Marat’s bathtub and told him of the uprisings occurring in Caen and even went so far as to proffer a list of names of possible traitors, which Marat diligently copied on parchment atop his makeshift writing block next to his tub. Marat, satisfied with this information, then assured Corday that all these traitors would all be guillotined in a few days, and he settled back down into his bath. And it was at that moment that Charlotte Corday struck. She whipped out a butcher’s knife from inside the folds of her dress, and bore it into Marat’s bare chest-- and the bleeding was so severe and immediate that he died within seconds.
For David, Marat’s death was a deeply personal loss. Not only did the stand on the same side of history and politics, but David also considered Marat a friend. So of course it made perfect sense that he’d be the one to memorialize him, quickly after his assassination, in a loving portrait. But a simple, straightforward portrait, remembering Marat as he was in life, just wasn’t what David had in mind. He wanted something more dramatic. A little more timeless. A little more… spiritual, perhaps?
Coming up next, right after this break--David’s sacred and profane masterpiece. Stay with us.
Welcome back to ArtCurious.
Behold, The Death of Marat (also called Marat Assassine, or Marat Assassinated), one of David’s most famous paintings, and possibly his very best work-- because the way David presents his subject is, frankly, incredible. He eschews most of the facts of the story outside of Marat himself-- including Charlotte Corday entirely--in favor of a spare scene befitting its funereal subject matter. Here, Marat’s upper body slumps back against his cloth-covered tub, draped in a white sheet and a green throw. His right arm dangles lifelessly, his hand still holding a white quill. Eyes closed and brows slightly upturned, his expression is a bit of a contradiction, as it reads as both serene and sorrowful simultaneously. There’s barely anything but Marat’s body to see here-- for nearly two thirds of the painting above him is blank space, a dusky setting of blacks and grays. There’s nothing to distract us, as viewers, so we can only really zone in on Marat’s face, and the deep gash just below his clavicle on his right side, which bleeds surprisingly gently, for a fatal wound. But look around a little, and you can see more evidence of blood-- a smear of a fingerprint on a piece of paper; a stain on a white sheet; the bathwater now tinged pink; and, most tellingly, a bloody knife lying on the floor. So Charlotte Corday might not be in the scene, but her presence is made known, not only with that weapon, but also in a letter clutched in Marat’s left hand. It reads, in rough translation: “July 13, 1793. Marie anne Charlotte Corday to Citizen Marat. My great unhappiness gives me a right to your happiness.” Next to Marat’s bath is a makeshift desk, a wooden block upon which Marat would pen his notes, screeds, and articles. Sweetly and simply, at the bottom of this block, David inscribed his name, and the words, “To Marat.” For a scene of the aftermath of an infamous Revolutionary murder, it’s all rather lovely.
Marat was first exhibited in the Louvre alongside another of David’s commemorative portraits, one that was far less striking than the first. Comparing these two, critic wrote, “Although these two pictures are conceived each in their own way in the best possible terms, artists especially admire the picture of Marat. Indeed it is difficult to look at it for very long, so terrible is its effect.” But while artists apparently admired David’s portrayal of Marat, the general public, even in a short time, had changed its opinion on the Revolutionary. After his death, and as the direction of the Revolution grew more grim and transitioned to the awful phase known as the Reign of Terror, Marat’s once-heroic image dissolved into villainous characterizations. Both conservatives and liberals regarded him as a barbaric monster and an instigator of destruction. His physical appearance-- specifically that skin condition, which David chose not to depict in his portrait--was also weaponized by Marat’s many critics. For example, the opening words of a 1797 biographical sketch described him as “short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in the face.” This was the realm in which David’s memorial was presented to the French people-- people were mad, really mad, to see Marat so idolized. They were furious. And just as angering as seeing Marat celebrated at all was the manner in which David chose to present him. Remember how David loved the great artists of the High Renaissance, especially Raphael and.. hint-hint… Michelangelo? Well, some keen-eyed viewers may have already caught the allusion that David is making here to one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures-- the Pieta, from the Vatican. In that work, Jesus slumps on Mary’s large lap with his head falling back against her arm, and Jesus’s right arm dangles in a very familiar way. David certainly saw and admired this work when he lived in Rome after winning the Rome Prize, and he also another work of art that took its own inspiration from Michelangelo’s work: a painting by Caravaggio, called the Entombment of Christ, that featured that same limp pose and dangling art. David here lovingly calls back to two of his favorite artists, and even further heightens the connection by calling upon Caravaggio’s habit of stark and dramatic lighting for his scene of Marat’s death.
All art historical references and nerdery aside, you might not be too surprised to hear that this kind of characterization or portrayal was not received so well by the general public. If you listened to our last season on shock art, recall the episode we did about Albrecht Durer’s self portrait from 1500-- the one where he specifically modeled his own appearance on that of Christ from centuries of artistic depictions. As the 19th century and its religious revivals inched closer and closer, this kind of representation-- of borrowing from Christian imagery for lay purposes--just didn’t fly anymore. This image of Marat as holy martyr, combined with the fact that many just didn’t like Marat any more, meant that David’s hopes of truly honoring his leader and friend were quickly dashed.
Due to growing dissent over the Revolution and its leaders, as well as his own allegiances to the Revolution, David found himself in hot water and was being prosecuted for his participation in the Terror, and he fled France and sought exile in Belgium, where he remained for rest of his life. During this time, he forced to conceal The Death of Marat in an effort to save it from being destroyed. From 1795 onward, one of David’s pupils kept the painting in hiding, and it fell into relative obscurity as Marat himself became a footnote in history. After David’s death in 1825, the painting was rediscovered when various items from David’s studio were sold off, and it, too, was considered for sale, but there were no takers. Even then, it was considered too controversial to sell.
It was not until the 1860s, 70 years after Marat’s murder, that a more sympathetic attitude towards Marat himself arose. In his piece, Marat, l’ami du peuple (or Marat, the friend of the people), writer Alfred Bougeard noted that had Marat lived, he surely would have saved the Revolution and, thus, thousands of lives-- a sentiment that was echoed by German philosopher Friedrich Engels later in 1884. From then on, Marat’s legacy shifted in a positive direction and he was especially lauded as a Communist hero throughout Soviet Russia. Divided views of the Revolutionary leader continue to prevail, but David’s portrait of him remains as a highly respected work of art, as well as a staple of neoclassicism. It also has its own afterlife as a pop-culture reference in its own right, with artists like Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso creating their own versions of Marat’s death scene, Stanley Kubrick references it in a scene from his 1975 film Barry Lyndon, and many others, but my favorite has to be artist, designer, and choreographer’s video art take, presenting Lady Gaga in a gorgeously-lit gender-swapped rendition. So even though many viewers don’t exactly know who Jean-Paul Marat-- or even Jacques-Louis David-- is, the influence of this French painting is long-lasting.
Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Adria Gunter. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com. Additional editing is by Hannah Roberts.
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Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of art history.