The Puzzling Philosopher: The Multilayered Meaning of Jacques Louis David’s Death of Socrates
"To achieve their goal, masterpieces must charm but also penetrate the soul and make a deep impression on the mind that is similar to reality...Therefore the artist must have studied all the motives of mankind and he must know nature thoroughly. In short he must be a philosopher."
- Jacques Louis David
Jacques Louis David was the premier painter in France during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and he has been widely hailed as the central figure of the Neoclassical school, which dominated the French Academy during his lifetime. Of David’s many works, few have attracted as much attention as his 1787 painting, The Death of Socrates. David’s work was widely acclaimed, with one critic describing it as “the most exquisite and admirable effort of art which has appeared since the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Stanze,”and Thomas Jefferson was also noted for his immense praise of the work.
However, the widespread praise and appeal of David’s work does not mean there is a universal understanding of The Death of Socrates. Indeed, the meaning of this painting has been hotly debated over the years, with some arguing that it is best understood as a quintessential example of Neoclassical Style and its philosophical emphases on private and social/political virtue,while others have more recently argued that the work is a reflection David’s own understanding of himself as an intellectual elite and his desire for an intimate male community.Although some scholars may treat these differing interpretations as mutually exclusive, they are not necessarily so. Thus, by more fully examining David’s works and others in the Neoclassical Style, we may begin to unravel the puzzled meaning of The Death of Socratesand its puzzling author, a man who styled himself as a political commentator and philosopher and who longed for a homosocial intellectual community to acknowledge him and engage with him as such.
John Boydell quoted in Simon Lee, David, Art & Ideas (London: Phaidon, 1999), 104.
See Charles Sterling, A Catalogue of French Paintings XV-XVIII Centuries, The Metropolitan Museum of
Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), 192 and David Carrier, “The Political Art of Jacques-Louis David and his Modern-Day American Successors." Art History 26, no. 5 (November 2003): 738.
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David After the Terror (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 57.
Jacques Louis David | The Death of Socrates | 1787
Oil on Canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The centerpiece of the curation and one of David’s premier works, The Death of Socrates was first displayed at the Salon in 1787 just two years before the dawn of the French Revolution. Though a history painting depicting events from the past, the parallels between Socrates’ heroic stand against an unjust state and the current French political climate were obvious to French audiences, as David’s work called for individuals to follow Socrates’ example and honorably sacrifice themselves for the good of the state despite the oppressive regime. At the same time, Death of Socrates portrays an idealized intellectual male community that David longs for. Indeed, David paints himself into the painting, placing his initials next to Plato and Crito, signaling his philosophical (represented by Plato) and physical (represented by Crito gripping Socrates’ leg) desire for an intellectual homosocial community.
Pierre Peyron | The Death of Socrates | 1787
Oil on Canvas
Statens Museum for Kunst at the National Gallery of Denmark
Painted in the same year as David’s Death of Socrates, Peyron’s work was judged to be inferior to that of his rival, but it nonetheless was a popular example of history painting in its own time. Perhaps ironically, Peyron’s portrayal of the famous philosopher’s death was commissioned by the French Monarchy’s Minister of Culture and was interpreted to be anti-democracy, as Socrates’—the hero of the narrative and the paragon of what it meant to be a great philosopher and intellectual—death was the result of the democratic process that revolutionaries were in favor of. While different in many ways from David’s work on the same subject, Peyron’s Death of Socrates similarly extols the virtue of Socrates’ teachings and of his courage, encouraging the viewer to contemplate and emulate his virtue.
Jacques Louis David | The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons | 1789
Oil on Canvas
Painted in the same year that the French Revolution began, David’s Lictors serves as a prime example of his socially and politically conscious history painting. The scene retells the story of the Roman leader Brutus ordering the execution of his sons after they tried to lead an insurrection to restore the monarchy to Rome. With clear parallels to current events, David’s work was aimed at teaching virtue to French audiences. Like Brutus, the French people were to remain rational and not be swayed by emotions, putting the needs of the state above their emotions or their own families. David’s work also highlights his belief and desire to be in a community dominated by male rationality, with the static Brutus portraying an air of solemn rationality (the philosophical, intellectual ideal David craved) and virtue in contrast to the flailing, emotionally driven women in the right of the picture plane.
Jacques Louis David | The Intervention of the Sabine Women | 1799
Oil on Canvas
The Intervention of the Sabine Women is another of David’s works teeming with political and social meaning. Painted while David was in prison for his close political ties with extremist Jacobin revolutionaries, his history painting was meant to draw comparisons between the story of the Sabine women with contemporary France. David carried forward the story from Poussin’s 1633-1634 Abduction of the Sabine Womenand portrayed the end of the story in which the abducted Sabine women vie for peace between their Roman captors turned husbands and their Sabine tribesman. In an era of extreme violence and chaos, David—like Hersilia, the wife of the Roman leader Romulus and the daughter of the Sabine chief, standing in the fray calling for peace—called for French revolutionaries to put aside their differences, end the violence, and embrace peace for the sake of France’s future generations.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres | Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the Tent of Achilles | 1800
Oil on Canvas
Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris
A student of David’s school, Ingres was another important figure in the Neoclassical movement. Like David’s work, Ingres’ Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the Tent of Achilles is a history painting depicting a Classical scene from a historic source, Homer’s Iliad. Although less clearly concerned with teaching virtue or providing political commentary than David’s works, Ingres’Ambassadors echoes David’s emphasis on the masculine community with his sensual male nudes. The only female figure in the painting is relegated to the shadows in the left side of the composition, while the rest of the composition is dominated by the company of the muscular, nude male warriors. Just as in David’s work, the rational male community is idealized both physically as well as intellectually due to the philosophical source material.
One of David’s later works, his 1813 Leonidas at Thermopylae presents a dynamic scene that once again carries with it poignant political and social meaning. Following the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte, David painted another classical history scene to parallel this contemporary event. Just as Leonidas and the Spartans’ self-sacrificial military defeat at the hands of the Persian Empire was a moral victory for the Greeks and led to their ultimate victory, Napoleon’s sacrifice on behalf of the French people was to be seen as a moral victory for the ultimate good of France. Beyond the political meaning, David’s work is also a male dominated scene, evoking the Classical Greek focus on the male nude. The Spartans’ nudity combined with historical understandings of the homoerotic character of Spartan society makes for a scene teeming with desire and an idealized male community.