The portrait after the antique
Archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii revived interest in the antique as a mode for visual expression in the mid-eighteenth century. Idealisation of the features and the avoidance of contemporary clothing linked the present with the perceived virtues of the Classical past. In France, artists like Jacques-Louis David portrayed the Revolution as an attempt to reshape government and society according to Classical principles of virtue and patriotism.
Studio of Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat. Oil on canvas, 162.5 x 130
Jacques-Louis David’s earlier paintings of Roman Republican virtue, The Oath of The Horatii, and of Brutus and his dead sons, had described a stoical determination to put country before family or personal happiness, to sacrifice life for the greater good. Come the Revolution, David was the chief propagandist for the extreme Jacobins. Jean-Paul Marat (1743–93) was a journalist who supported this group’s struggle against the rival Girondins, urging the execution of all half-hearted supporters of the Revolution.
Marat, who did much of his work seated in a warm bath-tub to alleviate the symptoms of a painful skin disease, was stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathiser. The opportunity to turn this event into an image that would proclaim the sanctity of revolutionary virtue, and the continuing threat to it from its enemies, was immediately apparent to David, who presented his painting to the Convention four months after Marat’s death.
By pushing the action right to the front of the picture plane, and by concentrating on the essential details – knife, pen, letter, wound – David draws the spectator into an immediate reading of the situation. The Spartan conditions of Marat’s life makes links to the death of a classical hero, but David also draws on Christian imagery to move his audience. Marat’s right arm, falling over the side of the tub, recalls Christ taken down from the cross or placed in his tomb. The strongly directed light illuminates the transfigured face, and the blood on the white cloth suggests a sacrificial altar.
In her letter Corday had written ‘I am sufficiently unhappy to have a right to your protection.’ David invites our sympathy for the fallen hero by altering this to ‘I am sufficiently unhappy to have the right to your benevolence’, a benevolence further strengthened by the note on the wooden block in which Marat sends money to a widow whose husband has died defending his country.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department publication
Citizens And Kings: An Introduction to the Exhibition (0.8 MB)