DAVID, Jacques-Louis
(b. 1748, Paris, d. 1825, Bruxelles)

The Death of Marat

Oil on canvas, 162 x 128 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

This painting can be regarded as David's finest work, in which he has perfectly succeeded in immortalizing a contemporary political event as an image of social ideals. David's painting of Marat represents the peak of his involvement in the Revolution where invention, style, fervent belief and devotion combine to produce one of the most perfect examples of political painting. David presented the painting to the Convention on 14 November 1793.

Jean-Paul Marat saw himself as a friend of the people, he was a doctor of medicine and a physicist, and above all he was editor of the news-sheet Ami du peuple. He suffered from a skin disease and had to perform his business for the revolution in a soothing bath. This is where David shows him, in the moment after the pernicious murder by Charlotte Corday, a supporter of the aristocracy. David had seen his fellow party member and friend the day before. Under the impact of their personal friendship David created his painting "as if in a trance," as one of his pupils later reported.

David takes the viewer into Marat's private room, making him the witness of the moments immediately after the murder. Marat's head and arm have sunk down, but the dead hand still holds pen and paper. This snapshot of exactly the minute between the last breath and death in the bathroom had an immense impact at the time, and it still has the same effect today.

David has used a dark, immeasurable background to intensify the significance. The boldness of the high half of the room above the figure concentrates attention on the lowered head, and makes us all the more aware of the vacuum that has been created. The distribution of light here has been reversed from the usual practice, with dark above light. This is not only one of the most moving paintings of the time, but David has also created a secularised image of martyrdom. The painting has often, and rightly, been compared with Michelangelo's Pietà in Rome; in both the most striking element is the arm hanging down lifeless. Thus David has unobtrusively taken over the central image of martyrdom in Christianity to his image of Marat. Revolutionary and anti-religious as the painting of this period claimed to be, it is evident here that it very often had recourse to the iconography and pictorial vocabulary of the religious art of the past.

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