Friday in the atelier: "The Death of Marat" by Jacques-Louis David

First, my apologies. “Friday in the Atelier” is supposed to happen on Friday, not Saturday. In my haste to get this posted yesterday I neglected to actually click on the button marked 'Post'. Work and other commitments intruded so I didn't take the time to follow up by reviewing my site – a mistake I will try not to repeat.

In today's Atelier, I am presenting to you the painting, “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David. Painted in 1793, this painting is 5.3 feet high, and 4.2 feet wide – which doesn't come close to encompassing the sheer amount of French history that it represents. In my opinion, in order for anyone to appreciate the significance of this painting requires a basic background of the politics of late 18th century France. So please excuse me, but I'm going to offer you a history lesson filled with intrigue and adventure. Let's find out who Marat was, and why his death mattered so much to Jacques-Louis David.

In these days of Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast it is sometimes difficult for Americans to remember how much France sacrificed for the fledgling America. America's current anti-French environment is a childish response to France's advice to the United Nations to hold off on war against Iraq while the weapons inspectors finished doing their job.

There was a time when Americans blessed the French, when King Louis XVI created a coalition with Spain and the Netherlands in order to support the American Revolutionary War, providing money, troops, and the French Navy. The French Navy was especially important in the defeat of British navel forces during the Siege of Yorktown, which led directly to British peace negotiations, the Paris peace treaty, and British recognition of American sovereignty.

But the monarchy in France was in trouble. France was increasingly in debt, the King had lost control over the French nobility and high bourgeoisie, who refused to be taxed. Famine and crushing taxes were rampant among the peasants, and working and professional classes.

King Louis's inability to tax nobility led to the Parliament of Paris advising that the Estates-General assemble – for the first time in 150 years. The Estates-General consisted of representatives of each “estate”, including the Clergy (First Estate) the Nobility (Second Estate) and the Commoners (Third Estate). Almost immediately there was a power struggle, and the Third Estate defined themselves to be the National Assembly, dedicated not to fixing France's tax problem, but to reorganizing France's legislature and creating a French Constitution. The National Assembly was a transitional political body, and renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly a couple of weeks after forming. Two years later it dissolved itself in favor of the new, anti-monarchical Legislative Assembly.

The Legislative Assembly was a failure. Made up mostly of the politically inexperienced middle class, it radicalized factions to the Left and the Right. It suspended King Louis from office, emptied France's treasury, left the military in disarray, and led to domestic turmoil. After less than a year in power, it decided that a new National Convention should be formed, democratically elected by male Frenchmen aged 25 or older, without distinction to class. The National Convention held it's first session on September 20th, 1792. The next day it abolished Royalty.

The King's days were numbered. The French National Convention had him, his wife Marie Antoinette, their two children and the king's sister imprisoned to prevent them from being rescued by French royalists. During their imprisonment, France erupted in riots and violence as the different factions fought each other. King Louis was beheaded in January of 1793 at the orders of the National Convention. On June 2nd, the National Convention was taken over by radical factions who called for purges of the administration.

During this time, other European monarchies, frightened by the loss of power of France's monarchy and worried about preventing the spread of the strange Democratic experiment that was starting in America, invaded France from the East and the West. This - along with attacks by members of the various factions of French nobility, bourgeoisie, and commoners - forced the National Convention to take more desperate measures. Maximilien Robespierre, an influential member of the Committee of Public Safety, used his faction to come to power in the National Convention, and encouraged a popular policy to crush resistance to the French government. French citizens were conscripted to serve as soldiers, legislation was drawn up to declare what was illegal, and the guillotine was employed to dispense “justice” to those who resisted. By the beginning of September, 1793, France had entered its “Reign of Terror”.

Against this political backdrop Jacques-Louis David painted “The Death of Marat”, which served as a political statement of the murder of his friend, Jean-Paul Marat.

Jean-Paul Marat was born in Switzerland but France became his home. He was a scientist and physician who specialized in optics and electricity which he used in an attempt to alleviate diseases of the eyes and skin. He was well versed in philosophy, and he wrote an essay that attacked the philosopher Helvetius who had disparaged the physical sciences. Voltaire, who was a famous philosopher by this time, sharply criticized Marat's essay, which only served to increase Marat's fame.

Marat became a court doctor in France, and his work on electricity interested Benjamin Franklin, who visited Marat several times. He translated Newton's “Optics”, but he held a different opinion of some of Newton's work, which horrified the French Académie des Sciences and cost Marat membership in that Academy.

When the Estates-General assembled, Marat put aside his career as a scientist and philosopher, and took up politics. His lack of political reputation hampered him, but he still wrote essays that were heard by the Assembly – essays that tried to influence the structure of the French Constitution by arguing against rule by an elite few.

Marat started his own newspaper, called “The Friend of the People”, where he expressed suspicion of the powerful elite, and attacked powerful factions – exposing alleged disloyalties which resulted in the prosecution of many and creating enemies from which he fled to London by the end of 1789. He returned to Paris by May of 1790, and continued to publish his paper, but fear of reprisal often caused Marat to hide. Later Marat blamed the time he spent hiding in the sewers of Paris for his contracting an aggravating skin condition. This skin condition becomes important in David's painting of Marat's death.

He gained political support from the Cordeliers Club, a populist society that encouraged revolution against the monarchy and old regime. Through them, and through his popular writing, Marat was elected to the National Convention in 1792, in order to represent “The People” of France. He married that same year.

The National Convention was rife with factions, and Marat fought against one powerful faction called Girondin because he believed they supported rule by an elite few, instead of a Republican government. Marat's attempt to create a popular violent confrontation against the Girondin failed, and resulted in the National Convention ordering him to be tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, where he was acquitted and returned to his position in the Convention with even greater public support.

Marat's return to office was a deadly blow to the Girondin faction, who were overthrown and purged from the National Convention. Lists of Girondist membership were made in order to send them to the guillotine. On July 13, 1793, Girondins were trying to create a defense for themselves in Caen, in Northwestern France. Marat was at home in Paris trying to alleviate the discomfort of his skin condition in the only way that he had found to be successful - by soaking in a bath of cold water. A young women who claimed to be a messenger from Caen begged entrance to Marat's quarters in order to offer more Girondin names for the list of traitors. Marat asked her in, and recorded names of several Girondin deputies given to him by this woman, Charlotte Corday, and announced that they would be guillotined. Corday then pulled out a knife and plunged it into Marat's heart, killing him.

Corday was a member of the Girondin faction, who had killed Marat in order to save the lives of others in her faction. She claimed to have acted on her own, and had purchased the knife she used merely minutes before meeting with Marat. But her action resulted in reprisals which led to the execution of thousands of royalists and Girondins. Charlotte Corday was herself executed by guillotine on July 17th.

But why was Marat so important to Jacques-Louis David that David would commemorate his death?

Jacques-Louise David was born to a prosperous family in Paris, not quite bourgeoisie, his family were definitely of the “Third Estate”, but professionals. At the age of nine, David's father was killed during a pistol duel. His mother left him to be raised by his uncles, who were both wealthy architects. David was educated at the prestigious Collège des Quatre-Nations which was part of the University of Paris. But David was only a mediocre student who spent most lectures drawing in his notebooks. As a young man he was slashed along the right side of his face, which resulted in a tumor that made speech difficult. In his self-portrait he hides this side of his face in shadow.

Although his mother and his uncles wanted David to become an architect, David lobbied to become a painter instead, and his mother soon sent him to study with her distant cousin, Francois Boucher. Boucher's style was based on the style of carefree, lighthearted romance and aristocratic life that came to be known as Rococo, which didn't suit David's ideals of Neoclassicism. Boucher sent David to learn from Joseph-Marie Vien, whose style was more traditionally classical.

David attempted to win the Prix de Rome four times before winning in 1774. His losses were more due to politics than due to his ability – he was rightfully called a genius in art. He attended the French Academy at Rome where his instructor, Vien, had been appointed the director. His studies in Italy led him more deeply into classicism and also led him to a deep admiration of Raphael.

On his return to Paris he was quickly made a member of the Royal Academy and, in an unusual honor for the time, had two paintings included at the Paris Salon of 1781. His contemporaries praised his work, but the administration of the Royal Academy hated him for being in favor with the King. King Louis XVI had granted David lodging at the Louvre, a coveted honor reserved as a privileged for great artists, which David had won at a young age. David married Marguerite Charlotte Pecol, who was the daughter of the contractor of the King's buildings. Together they had four children.

David coveted the directorship of the French Academy in Rome, but his 1787 attempt to secure it was rebuffed by the Court faction in charge of appointments due to David's youth (He was 39). David's painting, “Death of Socrates”, exhibited during the 1787 Salon was immediately hailed as a masterpiece by critics, but its subject matter was political, critical of the elite, and so David did not receive royal honors for it.

By the 1789 Salon the French Revolution had began and the National Assembly was in charge. They had declared that all paintings must be approved before being shown at the Salon. David's paining, “The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons” was an obviously Republican symbol, and was initially refused by the National Assembly until newspapers reported that it would not be seen. Paris commoners agitated for the right to view the painting and the nobles in charge of the National Assembly gave in.

The French Revolution drove Paris painters to flee the country. Under a monarchy, painters were better able to find patrons and royal support for their work than they were under a Republic. But David stayed. His motives are not exactly clear – perhaps his love of classical art made him long for ancient Greece's Republican government, or perhaps he was influenced by his dislike of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Their petty hostility toward David, who they considered to be a young upstart, and their hypocrisy, grated against David's fierce independence and idealism. Instead of fleeing France, David stayed and started painting propaganda for the budding Republic.

David organized many festivals to commemorate those who died fighting royalists, the first of which was a parade in honor of Voltaire, called the “Father of the Revolution”. David was a member of the brand new National Convention in 1792, sitting alongside of his friends Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien Robespierre – who led the Committee of Public Safety.

To give an example of the degree to which David supported the French Revolution, when the National Convention tried King Louis XVI with charges to overthrow the new government David voted, with others, for the King's death. Remember, this is the same king that granted David's lodging at the Louvre, the king for which his father-in-law worked. David's wife Marguerite, who was a royalist, unsurprisingly divorced him for his vote.

By the time that Marat was assassinated by Corday, David had already organized several events for the republic, including the funeral of Louis Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau who was a member of the National Convention that was assassinated by a royal bodyguard for his vote to execute the King. For Le Peletier's funeral David painted, in only three months, the first painting of the French Revolution titled “Le Peletier Assassinated”. The painting was destroyed by Le Peletier's royalist daughter and only drawings and written accounts exist of it.

David organized an elaborate funeral for his friend Marat, and painted his most famous of paintings, “The Death of Marat”. This painting is powerful in its imagery, and is idealized in a religious sense. The name of Marat's assassin can be seen on the paper that he holds, and Marat is shown in his last breath. The painting holds similarities in lighting and composition to famous religious paintings, including Michelangelo's Pietà, and Caravaggio's “Entombment of Christ.”

David painted Marat as a haunting, holy martyr to the French Republic, an equal in martyrdom with Christ himself. The painting is an idealized portrait of an important figure, created while history itself was being made. You can see that the painting is good, but without knowing it's history you might never understand that it is great.

The National Convention soon came under the power of the faction The Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre who you'll recall was a friend of Marat and David. Robespierre had become a virtual dictator of France, and realized that David's festivals were a tremendous propaganda tool. (David's methods were later emulated by Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler for their value in propaganda!) David's last festival was organized to benefit Robespierre's attempt to create a new religion that mixed morality with the republic. Robespierre was to be the high priest in this new religion, of course.

But even Robespierre couldn't keep his power, conspirators in the National Convention organized against him and arrested him and tossed him into prison. He was quickly rescued by supporters. When the National Convention met again they declared Robespierre and his supporters to be outlaws, who were to be arrested by the National Guard. During the arrest, Robespierre tired to commit suicide, but merely shot himself in the jaw. The next day Robespierre was presented to the tribunal of the National Convention and guillotined without trial.

David was present during the National Convention session when Robespierre was seized and tossed into jail. The excitement made David ill, so he didn't attend the next session of the Convention, which saved him from being guillotined along with his friend. Still, David was arrested and jailed.

While in jail, David wrote letters to his former wife telling her that he had never stopped loving her. She then came to visit him in jail, and he got the idea to paint a work based upon the theme of love prevailing over conflict. He did this by telling the story of the Sabine Women, in a painting called “The Intervention of the Sabine Women.” Through the efforts of his former wife, David was freed, and remarried his wife in 1796. He retired from politics, went back to studio painting and started accepting pupils.

But politics were not finished with David. He was an admirer of, and esteemed by, Napoleon who commissioned David to create several works for him, one for which the Pope himself came to sit!

After Napoleon's abdication, when royalists had taken over and restored Louis XVIII to power, David was on the list of proscribed former revolutionaries – after all, he had voted for the execution of Louis XVIII's older brother. Even so, Louis XVIII granted David amnesty. But David refused the offer and exiled himself and his family to the City of Brussels in Belgium.

He began his last work, “Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces” in 1822, which he wanted to be his last, greatest work – surpassing all others – after which he would lay down his brushes and stop painting altogether. The painting was finished, and it was his last. Soon after he was hit by a carriage and died on December 29th, 1825.

France did not allow David's body entry for burial, so he was instead buried in Brussels.

However, his heart was buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

My apologies to all historians out there, I realize just how pitiful my summation of these events really is. The sheer depth of this period has kept historians busy for years trying to explain what happened during the French Revolution, and I could write a tome and still not come close to the richness of this history. Please excuse my mistakes, and take the time to investigate for yourself this fascinating time.


Anonymous said...

Very nice. I did my first university essay on David and his role in the Revolution. Fascinating stuff when you get into it.
I also saw some of his work at the National Gallery in DC - stunning to see in real life.
Thanks for the interesting blog, love your take on many issues.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Trivia: Marat was vulnerable to an attack in the bathtub because it was his habit to take very lengthy baths, as he suffered rather terribly from some skin condition for which bathing gave relief.

Anonymous said...

"Le Peletier Assassinated" has been "repainted" according to remaining documents.
(French website / summary in English, at the bottom).

Anonymous said...

Hi, I wanted to show the Marat of today :) there is the link:
What do you think about that?