Monday, September 14, 2009

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #7 - The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787, Oil on canvas, 51 x 77 1/4 in. (129.5 x 196.2 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

David is one of my personal favorite artists! His work is so powerful, so spare, so beautiful! He was privy to a superior education and the style of his training contributed to his rise as one of the great history painters. One of his early teachers was François Boucher, and though he was anxious to win the Academy's greatest honor, the Prix de Rome, it was not a fait accompli for him; his first submission was not accepted. Though he did not receive the Prix de Rome when he first attempted it, he had other commissions and prizes during his years as a student. He finally got to study at the French Academy in Rome and that is where he really connected with the classical influence that would inform his own work. As the AcDec guide states: "David became one of the most influential and successful artists of the 1780s, and some of his most important works were completed in the years leading up to the Revolution." He became very active in the politics surrounding the Revolution. "David also played a prominent role in the development of propaganda for the new Republic, staging funerals for martyrs of the Revolution, designing festivals for new secular heroes, and helping to construct a new body of symbolic imagery for the new political regime."

Because of his political bent and his artistic genius, Napolean commissioned him to create portraits of him as a statesman and as a powerful military leader. This is one of my favorite paintings of Napoleon:

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (also known as Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass or Bonaparte Crossing the Alps) is the title given to the five versions of an oil on canvas equestrian portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805. Initially commissioned by the Spanish Ambassador to France, the composition shows a strongly idealized view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps in 1800.

This piece of David, The Death of Socrates, was a painting he did during the early years of his career. The scene is powerful and emotional, Socrates has been accused by his society of corrupting the youth and has been sentenced to death. He chooses to be in control of his fate by drinking hemlock, a poison that kills someone slowly. He is in a prison cell - there are shackles and chains on the floor adding to the drama of the situation. Socrates is depicted as a trim, muscular and youthful man even though he is also shown as being advanced in age. His devotees are surrounding him as he points to the heavens and assures them that his soul will remain immortal. His other hand reaches out to the poison in a distracted kind of way. He is calm and assured, though his disciples are emotional and beginning to grieve his imminent death.

Back to my comment about David's spare paintings - his neoclassical scenes have an emphasis on the drama of the human predicament rather than a busy background. He uses light to increase the dramatic tension and focus the attention on the central figures. This stark, stage-like setting is very different from the frivolous, soft paintings of Rococo. Line is emphasized over color which was thought to be associated with intellectual thought rather than the emotional and sensual flavor of Rococo. This subject of classical history was meant to appeal to educated, literary people who were interested in the expanded thinking of the Enlightenment.

Self-portrait, Jacques-Louis David, 1794, Oil on canvas, 31.69 x 25.24 inches / 80.5 x 64.1 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

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