129 – The Calm before the Storm

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

One more painting from the 18th Century before I head back to the Baroque – my next series of lectures is called Caravaggio: A life in three paintings, and will start on Monday 24 May (at 2pm and 6pm, as before) with the following talks on 7 and 21 June. Full details are on the diary page… and while you’re there, you can also find the updated details for trips to Rome, Stockholm, Ravenna and Dresden. But more of Caravaggio later – let’s get back to the 18th Century.

This is one of the great paintings of Western Europe, and it’s worth going to Brussels just to see it. It was painted by Jacques-Louis David – the High Priest of Neo-Classical painting – just as things were rapidly going from bad to worse with the French Revolution. Although it is not immediately apparent, we are looking at a man lying in a bath. This is Jean-Paul Marat, journalist, political thinker, and revolutionary, who suffered from a skin disease, and spent hours working in his bath as this was the only place where his symptoms were mitigated. However, true to the ideals of ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ on which Neo-Classicism was founded, David does not show us the effects of this illness: it would distract from the gravity of the scene, and the dignity of its protagonist.

The bath is surrounded by white sheets, and a board, just visible near Marat’s chest, rests on its sides, with a green, fringed rug lying over it. This functions as a desk, with the addition of a rough, wooden box on which are placed an inkwell, a quill pen and some papers. Marat, dying, if not already dead, holds a blood-stained piece of paper in his left hand. His right arm has fallen, and another quill is held in his right hand, as if he is about to write on the floor. To the left of his hand lies a bloodied knife.

The writing on the paper is clear enough to read:

du 13. Juillet, 1793. Marie anne Charlotte Corday au citoyen Marat. Il Suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir Droit a votre benveillance.

13 July, 1793. Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday to citizen Marat. Because I am so unhappy I have a right to your help’.

With this letter, Charlotte Corday gained access to Marat, who was at work in his bath, and then she stabbed him. They were both revolutionaries – although they were members of different factions. He was one of the Montagnards – one of its leaders, even – whereas she was a Girondin (although some believe she was an out-and-out monarchist). The difference between the factions was in approach. The former were hard liners, they wanted a Republic, and they wanted the king dead. The latter also wanted a Republic, but did not vote for the death of the king, and balked at the extreme tactics of the Montagnards. We are on the brink of the Reign of Terror, when the Girondins would be put to death, and then, soon after, the Montagnards would turn on their own. As a journalist and pamphleteer, Marat published his own writings, and was one of those most responsible for communicating the aims – and the propaganda – of the revolutionaries, and also for denouncing the Girondins. He might also have been the man chiefly responsible for the September Massacre of 1792, when over a thousand prisoners were put to death for fear that they might join the Royalist army in defeating the Revolution. Of this number, there were admittedly 200 Swiss soldiers, but the majority of those killed had no real interest in, or connection to, the politics of the day. It was because Corday believed Marat was responsible for this excess that she wanted him dead, and used her letter to get access to him, claiming that she knew about a counter-revolutionary plot amongst the Girondins. It was this, she claimed, that made her ‘so unhappy’.

David’s painted may be naturalistic, but it is not a realistic portrayal of events. This is not how things happened. Corday stabbed Marat, yes, but she left the knife in his chest. Here we see it lying on the floor, blade and handle both bloodied. The quill sits upright between Marat’s fingers, almost as if planted in the ground. He was working for the Revolution when he died – and that was the message David wanted to communicate: he was a good man, working for you. An ardent believer in the Revolution, David had voted for the King’s death. He also voted to close the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture – but that might have been a personal vendetta, as they had never been his greatest allies. He dedicated the painting ‘to Marat’ and added the date L’AN DEUX – ‘Year Two’. The monarchy had been abolished in 1792, and a Republic declared: this was year two of that Republic.

Stepping back we might – if we know the story – see another ‘edit’. Charlotte Corday stabbed Marat, left the knife in his chest, and waited by the bath until she was arrested. She did not leave. And yet David has focussed on Marat: there must be no distraction. The wooden box acts almost as a tomb stone, a bold statement of this man’s name, and witnesses how little time he had had to achieve his aims – it is only year two, after all. With the knife on the floor, we can see the wound in his chest, blood trickling down towards the white sheet. It might remind you of someone else whose chest was pierced.

The similarity to Christ in Caravaggio’s Entombment is not coincidental. David, as the Revolution’s chief artist during the brief Republic, not only knew the power of painting, but also wanted to find new martyrs to inspire the people, and to reaffirm their faith in the machinations of political change. Marat was that martyr, and portraying him on this canvas, alone and at work, was a powerful and easily comprehensible masterstroke. Caravaggio echoes the fall of Christ’s arm with the tumbling shroud, and David echoes the shroud with the sheet in Marat’s bath.

The fact that Caravaggio’s Christ depended from Michelangelo’s Pietà is also not a coincidence. As Mary shows us her dead son, David shows us the Revolution’s dead saviour. Marat did not have the time to fall from grace and be murdered by his own, unlike Robespierre soon after. How much more, David asks, not knowing what would follow, could he have achieved? For Michelangelo the pathos lies with Mary: no mother should see her son die before her. For David, it is the bath. The bath cradles him. Murdering a sick man in his bath can only be seen as an act of cowardice.

The light, entering from top left (much as Caravaggio’s light often does), enhances the ideal, sculptural form of Marat’s body, and imbues it with an ethereal glow. There is even the suggestion of a halo in the white headdress. But no angels fly down with a palm of martyrdom, as one does in Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St Matthew, for example. Heaven is empty now, and the cool, grey background adds an oppressive solemnity to the scene, insistently focussing our attention on the inert body of this idealised man, on the white sheets sullied with his blood, on the sheet of paper, sullied with Corday’s lies, and on the fallen quill, Marat’s weapon of choice, which can no longer issue its compelling ‘truth’.

Such, it would seem, was the intention. Odd then that, once the Revolution had wrung itself dry, David should become court painter to the Emperor Napoleon. As a Revolutionary, though, and then a Son of Empire, it was not surprising that he should choose to go into exile after the Restoration of the Monarchy – even though he granted an amnesty, and offered the position of court painter to the new regime. He spent his last years – although less than a decade – in Brussels, dying there in 1825.

The Death of Marat was supposed to be one of three ‘Modern Martyrs’ – a second was destroyed in 1794, and the third was never completed. David reclaimed Marat in 1795, two years after it was painted. After Robespierre’s execution it didn’t have the same impact. The painting was still with his family as late as 1886, which is when they decided to give it to the city which had welcomed the great artist – if complex personality – as an honoured guest. That is why it is in Brussels to this day. I enjoyed seeing it last February, as rumours started to reach us of troubles in Italy – and a curious phenomenon called ‘lockdown’ – and I will certainly seek it out again. Whatever the reasons for its making, it communicates a profound sense of calm. Its echoes of Caravaggio have also inspired my next talks: I am looking forward to investigating the life of this remarkable artist through the National Gallery’s three paintings, each one representative of a different phase in his short life. I will probably also be blogging around the subject – Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti – over the next couple of weeks. But that remains to be seen.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

3 thoughts on “129 – The Calm before the Storm

  1. David was lucky to survive the downfall of Robespierre! Fascinating how such an ardent revolutionary would paint some of the most iconic images of Napoleon. Perhaps usurping emperors are better than hereditary kings?

    I wonder if David’s painting of Lepeletier survives in some dusty attic, but perhaps it was destroyed by his family, like Sutherland’s painting of the aged Churchill. But why didn’t David finish his painting of Bara?


  2. Thank you – I enjoyed this. When I last saw it in Brussels, some time ago, it was hung rather high up in a corner position that did not do it justice. Has it now been rehung in a more suitable place?


    1. Yes! I first saw it about 20 years ago, and it was in an odd purgatory, half way between the ‘old’ art and the ‘new’. Now it is at the end wall of a fair-sized room, with the wall to itself, and with a bench in front of it. You can sit and look at it in comfort.


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