There is an old English saying that goes a little something like; a picture is worth a thousand words. It is pretty self-explanatory but what it means is that the image you are gazing upon tells a story just as well as, or if not better than, a lot of written words. In the painting The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David it seems likes just that. One can almost read this work of art like a novel from left to right. This painting is a flawless instance of a neoclassical painter by a well-known effort of collected works as a source of inspiration for his art piece. Jacques Louis David is said to be looking through a pair of Roman lenses as he worked on this beautiful painting. He chooses to emphasis more on the well-known immortality philosopher’s sort of speech than the scene that is being portrayed. Jacques Louis David revenues a scene from Plato’s Phaedo and shades it after a Roman outlook while also using his perception of it, focusing on particular aspects of the painting itself including context, style, and unfairness. Most can agree this relates to a neoclassical form of art. Jacque Louis David does a fantastic job depicting Socrates’ final hours, each character, and the emotions that are running through everyone in the painting.
This beautiful oil on canvas masterpiece was completed in 1787 and was commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers. It stands at 51inches tall and 77 and 1/4 inches wide and is now located in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time of the French revolution moralizing themes were very popular. Many artists at the time were painting the death of the Socrates but none with the success of Jacques Louis David. In The Death of Socrates, Jacque Louis David shows Socrates in his last moments before his death. The story goes that Socrates was sentenced of humiliating the adolescence of Athens and presenting odd gods.
He heroically rejected the offer of exile and accepted his fate of death keeping his commitment to his philosophies and ideas. He was then condemned to decease by consumption the toxic hemlock. Socrates usages his demise as a final example for his acolytes rather than escaping when the chance arose and faced it calmly. David intended to use this painting as a tool to push for significant political reform. Compare this image to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Both artists use very similar techniques to express similar ideas. Jacques Louis David was evidently intending to parallel the characters of Jesus and Socrates, along with the circumstances surrounding both of their deaths.
To know what Jacques Louis David is trying to portray in this painting one must first understand the meaning and style of neoclassical art. Neoclassicism; has the Greek prefix nèos, meaning new. And the Latin suffix classics, saying of the highest rank. The Neoclassical age was recognized as; the stage of reason, or the explanation. It instigated in the mid-1700 and was a portion of the Greek and Roman past. The neoclassical era started as a reaction to the previous rococo period. Rococo art was light-hearted, fanciful, and lively while the neoclassical age was inspirational, classical, sober, unemotional, intellectual, heroic, and morally uplifting. This is a high volume neoclassical work of art due to the delivery of light, thoughtful melody, lack of very vivid colors, subdued contextual, and the persons appear to be highly accurate and almost faultless.
Taking on influences from ancient Greek and Roman history like their obsession with anatomy, simplicity, and 2d freezes depicting events, made their points of emphasis stronger and more realistic. The neoclassical artwork illustrated the seriousness of the time, society, reason, and tradition, as well as political events. The artists of this era wanted to return to the traditionalism and purity of the arts of Rome. Neoclassicism is sometimes characterized by the perfection and clarity of form. And also by dark colors, shallow space, and strong horizontal and verticals that make the artwork seem timeless unlike that of the non-spiritual baroque styles of art.
Jacques Louis David could have chosen any scene to recreate from Socrates last moments but picks this specific one. Plato’s Phaedo captures the final moments of Socrates at length before he takes the deadly poisonous plant that leads to his death. And the Phaedo of Plato was Jacques Louis David’s primary source for this work of art. This is the exact moment Socrates is grabbing the lethal beverage. And it is just that that is the front and very center of this painting, Socrates’ hand reaching for the hemlock. Socrates’ does not look afraid nor overwhelmed that brave. One can infer Socrates is pointing towards the sky knowing the underworld soon be waits for him. Although the word “underworld” is described as the souls arriving there (afterlife), and coming from here (earth) (Plato’s Phaedo).
In this painting, you can see shadows in it expressing that there is light coming into the jail-like cell. The top of the picture has a light directly shining down on Socrates right in the middle, making him the brightest figure in the scene. The colors begin to fade on the sides making the scene more vivid in the center drawing ones attention to the executioner in red and Socrates in white. The background here is flat fixing the attention of the viewer in the foreground where the action is at.
When the painting is viewed from right to left, group of weeping Athenians is dropping tears for their beloved friend’s soon death. Showing the more dedicated to principle figures having the more angular geometry or orthogonally positioned, while those who are ruled by passion are curved and weak. The bent and weeping statistics of the Athenians can be seen opening up on to the calm expression of the man himself in the middle of the painting. Socrates sits on a bed in this prison-like cell where he waits to die. But he does not look afraid nor overwhelmed. He sits upright not looking one bit fearful but very brave, and at one with his destiny (Louis David). Then continuing to view the painting from the middle on to the left side, it shows the man giving Socrates the hemlock and Socrates displayed in an angular symmetry.
This part of the painting is the climax. It shows the men weeping in the corner leaning into the left arm of Socrates which is the highest point of the scene, guiding the picture into Socrates right hand which then hovers over the cup of hemlock. The space between the side and the hemlock can metaphorically say to be carrying a weight that then falls back into the pain on the face of the man who hands the poison over. This man looks saddened possibly because he feels as though Socrates having to die is unjust. This man turns his attention away from the scene where it comes to rest on the left side of the painting where a man is sitting at the foot of the bed. The man is seated with his head bowed down, and may be portrayed as Plato himself. Since the painting is an interpretation of Plato’s dialogue. Behind the man, is a hall leading to a stairwell where one can see a woman and other men looking distressed going up the stairs as if they are leaving. We can account for Socrates actual death that the woman leads away in distress is Socrates wife, Xanthippe.
When viewing this painting from left to right though, one can read it almost like a novel. It is as if a scene is evolving, and a whole new view of the painting is seen. The entire scene appears to explode out of the head of the man at the foot of the bed, who as stated before, might be Plato. Since Plato is the interpreter of what happened to Socrates the day he was supposed to die. One can see this as maybe a thought or memory of Plato. Figuratively and literally as shown in the painting, another distinguishing detail that might approve this notion about the seated character is the fact that this man is located separately from the level and grey contextual. He sits where the cold lateral instant gives way to the complexity of period and realism.
Socrates has precisely 12 people surrounding him in his last few hours before he has to drink the hemlock and die. Each of these individuals seems distressed, saddened, frightened and more. There are too many emotions depicted in this painting. If Socrates died, due to fairness and justness in the Athenian government, why are there so many people saddened by his death except him? It seems as though maybe people didn’t think that his punishment of death was fair for the charges that were made against him. Recall the allegations made against Socrates were impiety and corrupting the youth. Death due to those charges does not seem fair.
But Socrates lived an exciting and long life. Long enough for him to be okay with death and accept his destiny. Except everyone else surrounding him can’t face the fact that they’re beloved Socrates, has come to an end.
Jacque Louis David did a marvelous job with depicting Plato’s Phaedo in this neoclassicism form of artwork. He beautifully displays each character and the emotions running through them. Jacque Louis David uniquely describes Socrates final hours by putting Plato’s Phaedo in his perspective. He used his perceptions of the scene to show whether or not Socrates’ death was just or unjust. He does a great job of using personal, political, historical, and aesthetic elements to show off the scene in a perfect painting, doing so forcefully and suddenly, but also beautiful.
Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784-1785, Oil on canvas
Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates, 1787, Oil on canvas
Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793, Oil on canvas
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