The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David
The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David
Lepeletier Saint Fargeau Death
Widely admired during the Terror whose leaders ordered several copies of the original work (copies made in 1793-1794 by David's pupils to serve propaganda), The Death of Marat had begun to fall into disfavor after Robespierre's overthrow and execution. It was returned to David in 1795, himself being prosecuted for his involvement in the Terror as a close friend of Robespierre (he would have to wait for Napoleon's rise to become prominent in the arts once more).
From 1795 to David's death, the painting languished in obscurity and fell into oblivion. During David's exile in Belgium, it was hidden, somewhere in France, by Antoine Gros, David's dearest pupil. In 1826 (and later on), the family tried to sell it, with no success at all. It was rediscovered by the critics in the mid-nineteenth century, especially by Charles Baudelaire whose famous comment in 1846 became the starting point of an increased interest among artists and scholars. In the 20th century, the painting inspired several painters (among them Picasso and Munch who delivered their own versions), poets (Alessandro Mozzambani) and writers (the most famous being Peter Weiss with his play Marat/Sade).
The original painting is currently displayed at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, being there as a fortunate result of a decision taken by the family to offer it, in 1886, to the city where the painter had lived quietly and died in exile after the fall of Napoleon. Some of the copies (the exact number of those completed remains uncertain) made by David's pupils (among them, Serangeli and Gérard) survived, notably visible in the museums of Dijon, Reims, and Versailles. The original letter, with bloodstains and bath water marks still visible, has survived and is currently intact in the ownership of Robert Lindsay, 29th Earl of Crawford.
The death of Marat was also depicted by other artists, including Charlotte Corday by Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry, painted in 1860, nearly a century after the murder, during the Second Empire. This painting, made when Marat's "dark legend" (the angry monster insatiably hungry for blood) was widely spread among educated people, depicts Charlotte Corday as a true heroine of France, a model of virtue for the younger generations. Munch and Picasso later delivered their own versions.
The Death of Marat (French: La Mort de Marat ) is a 1793 painting in the Neoclassic style by Jacques-Louis David and is one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. It is referring to the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, killed on the 13th of July 1793 by Charlotte Corday.
Jean-Paul Marat (May 24, 1743 – July 13, 1793), was a Swiss-born French physician, philosopher, political theorist and scientist best known as a radical journalist and politician from the French Revolution.
Marat often sought the comfort of a cold bath to ease violent itchings due to a skin disease long said to have been contracted years earlier, when he was forced to hide from his enemies in the Paris sewers.
David was a close friend of Marat, as well as a strong supporter of Robespierre and the Jacobins. Due to his difficulty speaking (he had a benign but large facial tumor, the result of an injury sustained while fencing) he was overwhelmed by their natural capacity for convincing crowds with their speeches. Determined to memorialize his friend, David painted his portrait soon after his murder. He was asked to do it because of his previous painting, The Death of Lepelletier de Saint-Fargeau. (After 1826, nobody saw this work, representing the first martyr of the Revolution, a deputy murdered on January 20. The official reason for his death was for having voted for the death of King Louis XVI, though he was possibly also the victim of some obscure plot implicating Spain.)
Despite the haste in which the portrait of Marat was painted (the work was completed and presented to the National Convention less than four months after Marat's death), it is generally considered to be David's best work, a definite step towards modernity, an inspired (and inspiring) political statement. At the time of its creation, all contemporary sources clearly indicate that the painting was not to be dissociated, neither in its exhibition nor in its evaluation, from The Death of Lepelletier, the two functioning as a pair if not properly as a "diptych". Till David's death in 1825, it remained so, the two paintings sharing the same fate from success to oblivion. The unfortunate disappearance of The Death of Lepelletier does not allow us today to watch The Death of Marat the way David had planned it.
Although the figure of Marat himself is idealized—for example, none of the skin problems from which he suffered are obvious in David's depiction—the details surrounding the subject are considered largely true-to-life. David said that he had visited Marat the day before his assassination and remembered seeing the sheet, the green rug, the papers, and the pen, promising his peers of the Convention later on he would depict their murdered friend invocatively as "écrivant pour le bonheur du peuple" (writing for the good of the people). The image of his death is designed to commemorate a personable hero: although the name Charlotte Corday can be seen on the paper held in Marat's left hand, the assassin has been withdrawn. Close inspection shows the victim at his last breath, when Corday and many others were still around (it is established that Corday didn't try to escape), so the artist's intent is to record more than just the horror of martyrdom.
In this sense, for realistic as it is in its details, the painting, as a whole, from its start, is a methodical construction focusing on the victim, a striking set up regarded today by several critics as an "awful beautiful lie"— certainly not a photograph in the forensic scientific sense and barely the simple image it may seem (for instance, in the painting, the knife is not to be seen where Corday had left it impaled in Marat's chest, but on the ground, beside the bathtub).
First and most significantly, this painting is a portrait of the man that Charlotte Corday killed on the 13th of July. But there is more here than meets the eye. The painting as we know it has often been compared to Michelangelo's Pietà — note, in particular, the elongated arm hanging down in both works. David was also a known admirer of Caravaggio's works, especially for their composition and light, and Entombment of Christ (1602-1604), kept in the Vatican's Pinacotheca, is another often quoted reference. The similarities may be the result of an "unconscious mental alchemy" in the brain of an artist reputed for his extended visual culture, but they may be deliberate. That David sought, in art, to transfer the sacred qualities long associated with the monarchy and the Catholic Church to the new French Republic is indisputable — no doubt he was expected to do so by the leaders of the Terror. Consequently, he painted Marat, martyr of the Revolution, in a style reminiscent of a Christian martyr, with the face and body bathed in a soft, glowing light, but as Christian Art had done it from its beginning, he also played here with multileveled references including Classical Art, this in order, not only to respond to an immediate political event (aspect that "ate" the literature on the subject, probably due to the impact of French Revolution on occidental imagination), but as well to compete with Rome as Capital and Mother City of the Arts, the French revolutionairs being thrilled with the idea of forming a kind of new Roman Republic (a fact proved by so many of their published speeches).
In that perspective, more models, having a Roman origin (as a student of the Academy of France, David spent many years in Rome where he made more than 1,000 drawings he later kept in 12 albums, copied from the ancient masters) possibly interfered. Quite interesting is to observe that almost all of these models (the relief of Il letto di Policletto from the Palazzo Mattei, the statue on the façade from the jesuit church Il Gesu, the Giuditta with the head of Holoferne painted by Guido Reni or the copy made by Carlo Maratta, reliefs with the Death of Meleagre, etc.) were to be seen in the same Roman neighbourhood, precisely the one were David stayed at the Academy of France (which was then located in Via del Corso, close to the Campidoglio). Doing so in the long hot summer of 1793 (this heat being the reason of the rapid decay of Marat's corpse which gave so much trouble for the funeral), David actually continued a fascinating regeneration process (of the Arts and of himself) he initiated earlier in the year with his Death of Lepelletier, an image achieved in less than three months, quoting his own previous Hector from his Andromaque mourning the body of Hector (his 1783 reception work to the Academy), both images (Hector, Lepelletier) reprocessing previous works such as The Testament of Eudamidas by Poussin (the most Roman of the French painters) before 1650, and the saint Sebastien carved by Giuseppe Giorgetti before 1672 (for the basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura in Rome).
Therefore, rarely has a painting been such a paradox, for this "multifaceted" image is simultaneously a portrait, a historical painting in the highest sense (the way David himself emphasized it in the lists he later left of his own works), a realistic image, an idealized one, a burning topical act, and a scholarly intended condensation of multiple ancient models. The key of the artistic achievement being to succeed in this "meticulous mix", this to elaborate a powerful and haunting "icon for the masses", and at the same time, to give birth to a classical gem, what David would later often summarize this way : on the one hand, a perfect mirror of its time, on the other hand, a work that any Antique viewer could have taken as a product of his own age (an ambition that will sustain everything David and many of his pupils will henceforth undertake).
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