Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas, 129.5 x 196.2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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This work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We are on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at one of their treasures. This is Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates.” It was painted in 1787, just two years before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:19] We have this central figure, who points up toward the heavens, who’s old but noble and seems so wise. Around him, figures who appear to be grieving.

[0:30] This is the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, who’s reaching for a cup of poison, a cup of hemlock. Socrates, in 399, is put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and for disrespecting the gods of Athens. He’s found guilty and offered a choice. He could renounce his beliefs, or he could die by his own hand, and Socrates chooses death.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] Presumably at this moment just before he accepts this cup of poison, his face is resolute as he expounds on the immortality of the soul. This painting exists in two different points in history. It’s a representation of 399 B.C.E. in ancient Greece. It’s also about the political moment just two years before the revolution.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] The idea of a philosopher being willing to die for their beliefs.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] Which was a very seductive idea in an era when the government of France was widely seen as corrupt, indulgent, and in desperate need of reform.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] We have this subject matter taken from ancient Greek philosophy. The style, too, looks like ancient Greek sculpture. The figures are arranged for the most part in a single plane very close to the foreground, [with] a very stark wall behind them that helps to remind us of ancient Greek relief sculpture.

[1:56] And David has paid close attention to the anatomy of the figures, the way that the ancient Greeks had done in their art. This love of the body and the folds of the drapery, which are so carefully rendered, also remind us of ancient Greek sculpture.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] A series of sketches survive that express David’s intense interest in the way that light moves in and around the folds of drapery. Although David was young when he painted this, he had gone to Rome for five years to study antiquity.

Dr. Harris: [2:27] He consulted scholars. He looked at ancient Greek and Roman art. He was interested in making this look truly classical.

Dr. Zucker: [2:36] Although there are limits to the accuracy. Here we see, for instance, an arched barrel vault, which is something that may well have been seen in ancient Rome, not so much in ancient Greece.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] We have such a clear, rational space formed by the use of linear perspective. We have these diagonal lines in the stones on the floor that recede back into space, that clear space of the barrel vault on the left, and yet this frieze of figures that unfolds horizontally.

[3:04] Socrates sits at the center. His trunk is so upright, and to me, it contrasts with the horizontality of his right thigh. We almost have this combination of a figure who’s standing and sitting simultaneously, and these figures around him who are so different emotionally than he is. He’s so stoic. He’s so certain about what’s right and what needs to be done, and these figures around him who express a range of emotion about this loss that’s about to happen.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] The figures part around him. The drape falls off his body, revealing this masterful rendering of the human torso.

Dr. Harris: [3:44] Then, we follow his right arm, which hovers just above that cup of poison, and we can see how carefully David has delineated those places where light and dark come together on his fingers.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] The space between the hand of Socrates and the cup creates a sense that, in just a moment, his hand will grasp it, that this is an action that has not yet been fulfilled, but which is inevitable.

Dr. Harris: [4:10] This is one of the things that artists have to do when they tell a story. How do you have time unfold in a painting which is still? David does this masterfully.

[4:20] Typically, he did numerous studies of the composition, of individual figures. Something that he changed between the time of the studies and the final painting was the position of the hand. Originally it had been just behind the cup, and here it is hovering above.

Dr. Zucker: [4:37] Then our eye moves across the foreshortened forearm of the guard who holds the cup, and moves up and across his shoulders. Even the guard is so distraught, he can’t even look at his own actions, but by covering his eyes, he actually leads me to the seated figure at the foot of the bed.

[4:54] This is the great Greek philosopher Plato, Socrates’ most famed student. Interestingly, we don’t think Plato was actually at the execution, but here he has been placed by David in a restful, contemplative pose, so different from the act of grief of the figures behind him.

Dr. Harris: [5:10] Just in front of Plato, we see a scroll with some ink and a pen. Beside that, we see the chain that once bound Socrates’ ankles. In fact, we can see that his right ankle is red from where the shackles had been. Then, if we follow those shackles, we see a lyre, an allusion to poetry, to writing, to music. And the tallest form here, a lamp, which creates a shadow on this stark gray back wall.

Dr. Zucker: [5:41] The left side of the painting is more recessive. We see a barrel vault going to a staircase, and there we see a group of three people, one of whom is commonly thought to be the wife of Socrates.

Dr. Harris: [5:50] This movement of figures into the distance, up these stairs, continues this idea of the passage of time, because we have a separation with his family that’s already happened and a separation from his followers that’s about to happen as he drinks the hemlock.

Dr. Zucker: [6:08] This is a painting that’s about a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a belief.

Dr. Harris: [6:13] A certainty is presented here. Socrates knows what must be done. He’s certain he’s made the right decision, and this kind of commitment to an ideal, to a principle, touched a nerve during the revolution. This idea that sacrifices must be made for the revolutionary ideals.

Dr. Zucker: [6:34] The artist was brilliant in finding a formal language to convey certainty, not only through the facial expression of Socrates but through the clarity of line of light.

[6:45] The light enters from the upper left, but it enters at an extreme angle to the figures, it breaks across their surface, creating these very sharply delineated transitions between light and shadow, so everything feels especially vivid.

Dr. Harris: [7:00] Especially crisp and clear, and there’s no sign of the artist’s brushwork to distract us from those forms.

Dr. Zucker: [7:08] I’m really taken by the colors, these rich tonalities of gray.

Dr. Harris: [7:12] There is a kind of cool rationalism that speaks to this moment of the Enlightenment and the liberal ideas of David and of the patrons for this painting. In other words, they were sympathetic with the ideas that would spark the revolution two years later.

Dr. Zucker: [7:30] The patrons did not survive the revolution, they were both executed in 1793.

Dr. Harris: [7:35] Despite having appealed to David, who had been their friend. David at this point was part of the revolutionary government. He espoused very radical, revolutionary beliefs, and failed to help the brothers when they appealed to him.

Dr. Zucker: [7:52] And so this painting is an expression of a noble ideal, but its actual history is a more complex and more violent one.

[7:59] On the one hand, you have Socrates’ acceptance of heroic sacrifice for something that he believes in, but then the actual history of this painting shows the way in which ideals and revolutionary fervor can become simply murderous.

[8:11] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates," in Smarthistory, October 26, 2022, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jacques-louis-david-the-death-of-socrates/.