The Death of Socrates

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Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
By ISABEL THOMAS

The gray-haired man bears off-white clothing that mirrors his attempted piety. Despite the harshness of his dark cell, a light reminiscent of Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew engulfs the philosopher and his students. As the man reaches for the hemlock and seals his fate, his wife waves goodbye and exits the room, bringing depth to the painting. The man, Socrates, frees himself from earthly pain and rigid Athenian law by choosing death, and the unlocked shackle below his feet captures his liberation. With the exception of Plato and Crito, Socrates’ followers act hysterical, but their teacher is in complete control, emulating the painting’s severe lines. Only the clothing on Socrates and his pupils escapes the dim gray cell, and each man’s robe has a color as individual as his school of thought. In this painting, The Death of Socrates, David creates a technical masterpiece with realistic emotion, accurate anatomy, and perfect drapery. In this work – neoclassical in both subject and style – David calls upon the past to incite revolution.

Socrates claimed a personal connection to the gods through his Daimon, or messenger angel. The Athenian court saw this as an unlawful introduction of deities and charged Socrates with heresy as well as corruption of his young students. In David’s painting, Socrates points to the sky as he reaches for the hemlock. With these two final actions, the philosopher ends his life in complete control. Socrates used death as a message of strength for his students, and David sought the same effect amidst the instability of 1787 France.

Like in his famous Oath of the Horatii, David pictures a man choosing to die for allegiance to a concept in The Death of Socrates. Prominent political and artistic figures alike praised the strength of this painting. David revived the story of Socrates as a challenge to the French people to maintain their convictions and revolutionary spirit. The Death of Socrates conveys David’s belief that the fight for liberty exceeds all sacrifice, including death.

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