The Death of Marat, 1793, Oil on Canvas, 64 x 50” (162 x 128cm), Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Jean-Paul Marat was Jacques-Louis David’s friend. David is a great giant of art, considered by many to be the first true modern artist. Marat was a writer, a fomenter, a rabble-rouser who helped the French Revolution advance beyond its own noble aims into savagery and despicable revenge. David admired Marat for his gift of speech, his ability to stir the mob to passion. But Marat was by far the lesser man. Because David found speech difficult he exaggerated its power in others. The simple truth is that it is easy to stir the famished with talk of food, the enslaved with promises of freedom. Marat held himself above the excesses of his movement, but in the end he was its victim, too.
His murderer is the woman, Charlotte Corday, who is certain that his death will spare a hundred thousand lives. We know that she is nearby as Marat dies, just out of frame. David hates her for killing his friend, and will not keep her in the tableau. She will also die for her murder of Marat. Guillotined.
You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, they say.
There is nothing “collateral” about damage, there is only damage; there is no language in the commandment about “justification” or “cause” or “redress” or “justice,” there is only an injunction against killing. It is perhaps the clearest declarative statement in all religious history; it is certainly the most ignored. Move the mob incautiously and you unleash the Black Rider just as certainly as if you’d dropped the bomb. Not for nothing did they name this period of the French Revolution “the Reign of Terror.”
David is heartbroken at the death of his friend. He had visited this very room the day before as Marat took his soak. Marat suffered from a skin condition contracted during the time he hid in the Parisian sewers. David has lovingly refrained from painting the condition. He has taken the dagger from Marat’s chest and placed it on the floor beside the bath.
On the paper in his hand Marat has written “I am just too unhappy to deserve your kindness.” This is an extraordinary thing to say, and so I wonder if Marat had confided in David some secret feelings of guilt, if this is David’s way of granting him a discreet public repentance and confession.
Six years before, David painted the brilliant Death of Socrates. This is another great wordsmith, another man David would have well admired. But Socrates was like no other revolutionary before or since. His was a revolution of one. He refused to be other than he was. He was given every opportunity to avoid death, but rejected absolution if it meant equivocation. Socrates did not seek to move or inspire the mob. He sought to learn from each person he encountered. He was a grand and gifted listener. And he knew how to ask the questions which would remind you of those things you already know.
Both Marat and Socrates are important figures in history, but I am fairly certain only one of them is a great man. And within his artist’s soul, David knows this, too. We provoke the mob at our peril. No one is all wrong. No one is all right. One man moves millions with the righteousness and anger of his words; another moves but one person at a time with his gentle interest and nimble mind. I so wish I could be like that second man, like Socrates.
For you can see, at the end, who dies alone.
The Death of Socrates, 1787, Oil on Canvas, 51 x 77.25” (129.5 x 196.2cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City