1700 – 1800
Age of Enlightenment

David's Death of Marat

By 1793, the violence of the Revolution dramatically increased until the beheadings at the Place de la Concorde became a constant, leading a certain Dr. Joseph Guillotine it invent a machine that would improve the efficiency of the ax and block and therefore make executions more humane. David was in thick of it. Early in the Revolution he had joined the Jacobins, a political club that would in time become the most rabid of the various rebel factions. Led by the ill-fated Georges Danton and the infamous Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins (including David) would eventually vote to execute Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antionette who were caught attempting to escape across the border to the Austrian Empire.

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels)

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, oil on canvas, 1793 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels)

At the height of the Reign of Terror in 1793, David painted a memorial to his great friend, the murdered publisher, Jean Marat. As in his Death of Socrates, David substitutes the iconography (symbolic forms) of Christian art for more contemporary issues. The Death of Marat, 1793 an idealized image of David's slain friend is shown holding his murderess's (Charlotte Corday) letter of introduction.Jacques Louis David, The Death of Marat (detail), 1793 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels) The bloodied knife lays on the floor having opened a fatal gash that functions, as does Marat's very composition, as a reference to the entombment of Christ and a sort of secularized stigmata (reference to the wounds Christ is said to have received in his hands, feet and side while on the cross). Is David attempting now to find revolutionary martyrs to replace the saints of Catholicism (which had been outlawed)?

By 1794 the Reign of Terror had run its course. The Jacobins had begun to execute not only captured aristocrats but fellow revolutionaries as well. Eventually, Robespierre himself would die and the remaining Jacobins were likewise executed or imprisoned. David escaped death by renouncing his activities and was locked in a cell in the former palace, the Louvre, until his eventual release by France's brilliant new ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte. This diminutive Corsican had been the youngest General in the French army and during the Revolution had become a national hero by waging a seemingly endless string of victorious military campaigns against the Austrians in Belgium and Italy. Eventually, Napoleon would control most of Europe, would crown himself Emperor, and would release David in recognition that the artist's talent could serve the ruler's purposes.

Your Comments (3)

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Elizabeth Mansfield wrote on Thursday, December 17, 2009

Just to note that the inventor of the guillotine was named Guillotin, not Guillotine as indicated.

Kelsey wrote on Wednesday, February 03, 2010

I find it interesting how so many of these paintings have references to christs wounds to make sure that everyone knew that this person died for a great cause

Sally wrote on Thursday, August 11, 2011

I could swear I have seen this painting in person but I have never been to Brussels. Were there additional versions made or were there copies made or has this painting ever been loaned to other museums, such as those in Venice, St. Petersburg, London, New York, Chicago or Los Angeles? It's shocking to think of how this is a propaganda piece that escalated the horrific Reign of Terror. -- For a definitive answer, I suggest contacting the museum for the painting's loan history. (SZ)

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