The Death of Socrates
Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825)
The Death of Socrates, 1787
Oil on canvas, 51.0 in × 77.2 in
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Artists have almost always tried to look into the past to find some inspiration or, on the contrary, better understand what principles they should completely reject to introduce something innovative or even radical. The culture of ancient Greece and Rome was one of the themes that fascinated artists of different epochs. Jacques-Louis David, a French painter who mainly worked in the style of neoclassicism, referred to the life of Socrates, an outstanding ancient philosopher, in order to reflect the tendencies in the French society of the eighteenth century.
Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (oil on canvas) is quite a large painting measuring 51.0 in × 77.2 in. The painting shows a group of people in a minimalistic architectural setting. The walls of the room are made of large gray stones with no decorations on them. In the left half of the painting, there is an arch that leads to another room with stairs. At the foreground, David painted a simple wooden bed on which Socrates is sitting. His body is draped in white robes, and he is pointing upwards with his left hand. Around him, there are several people who are completely absorbed in their grief because they know that in a moment Socrates will drink poison and die. To the left of the philosopher, there is a young man who is giving him a cup with poison, but his sorrow is so insurmountable that he cannot even look at it and turns away. All these people are dressed in classical ancient togas of different colors.
David was very careful about the choice of color scheme for this painting. He actively supported neoclassicism which came after the Rococo style that was characterized by playfulness and florid ornaments (Fried). Neoclassical principles aimed at the complete rejection of these features with the focus on simplicity and deep meaning. Therefore, David’s painting is done in very reserved colors – gray, brown, ochre, and others. The even gray background is a powerful contrast to the figures that are located in front of the wall. These elements are supported by the special use of lines. The artist used many straight lines that made the general composition more serious and solemn. Some of the most evident lines are formed by architectural elements – stones, arches, stairs, and the furniture. The shapes that can be seen in this painting are of two different kinds: organic (the bodies of the people) and geometrical (all artificial objects). This combination allowed David to break the monotonous nature of the painting. It helped him to show the contrast between “coldness” of the architecture and the emotional drama of people who were present in the room. It is also very important to highlight the textures of different objects that make this painting a masterpiece of realistic art. David used very gentle and careful brush strokes to show the three-dimensionality of the space, the clothes of the men, and other elements. He also gingerly positioned the source of light to help him draw the audience’s attention to the most important parts of the painting.
The emphasis is made on the figure of Socrates who is the major focal point of the composition. He was “accused by the Athenian government of denying the gods and corrupting the young through his teachings” (“The Death of Socrates”). However, he was allowed to drink poison himself if he did not want to abandon his ideas. Therefore, the painting shows Socrates at the moment when he is about to die. This subject matter was very topical for France of that period as this painting was created two years before the start of the French Revolution that David supported (Roberts). It has obvious parallels to the society contemporary to David, where the royal power was often used to suppress radical ideas.
David’s art was aimed at introducing new concepts that would be opposite to the “royal” style of the previous epochs, so he paid close attention to making his painting balanced and united, unlike many jocular paintings of Rococo. The group of people at the foreground looks chaotic due to the overwhelming emotions that cause them great pain. It is balanced by the architecture and the figure of the old stoic man sitting at the left end of the bed. He is not as agitated as younger men, but it is obvious that he is also very sad about the death of Socrates.
I have chosen this painting because I was deeply impressed by the intensity of the moment depicted by Jacques-Louis David. Moreover, the decision that Socrates was faced with made him one of the people who, in my opinion, had a huge impact on the development of civilization. It is quite possible that if he had chosen to denounce his ideas, they would have been forgotten and the history would take a very different turn. It is a very beautiful work of art in terms of colors, balance, and other elements, but it evokes very sad feelings. Such tragic moments prove that the society often prefers to suppress those who try to bring changes or new ideas. It is still topical for the modern society and, unfortunately, it would be a mistake to say that this suppression is done in a more humanistic way. People are often murdered for their ideas, and it is very important to draw public attention to these issues. Therefore, David’s painting can be an effective reminder to be more democratic and tolerant.