World History Episode 5 The Persians & Greeks (Time Stamp 10:01)
The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787
Context in CC: “Life under the Athenians wasn’t so awesome, particularly if you were a woman or a slave, and their government was notoriously corrupt. And ultimately the Athenian Government derived its power not from its citizens, but from the imperialist belief that Might Makes Right. It’s true that Athens gave us Socrates, but let me remind you, they also killed him.” It’s hard out there for a philosopher charged with corrupting the youth. But, you know, when you have a dialogue, a method, and a paradox named after you (amongst other things) you probably did okay.
Greater Historical/Art Historical Relevance: I warned you we would see David again. His choice of classical subjects makes it easy to find away to use his painting to illustrate a discussion about ancient Greece. From much earlier in his career than Leonidas, The Death of Socrates is one of David many notable works. He depicts the forced suicide of the philosopher, Plato’s teacher, and important in a the line of Greek philosophical tradition: Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle….(and they all clearly taught each other how to play invisible basketball).
The depiction David chooses is partly based on Plato’s account of his instructors death, but it also includes some disciples that were not actually present. Socrates was found guilty of denying the gods corrupting the minds of young men. He sits in the center of the painting reaching out for the cup of poison, apparently indifferent to his imminent death.
The lines in this painting are mostly horizontal and vertical. While diagonal lines within a composition create dynamism, perpendicular, especially horizontal, lines create solidity and stillness. The simple interior and the equally perpendicular body lines of the figures create a sort of stoicism and calmness in the scene. This feeling is characteristic of David’s neoclassical style, it’s not a painting of action, but a tableaux, a frozen moment.
The Death of Socrates was painted just before the outbreak of revolution in France, about the time when David was beginning to become somewhat political. The subject implies a critique of the contemporary french government and the injustices committed by a corrupt authority. This painting, like many of David’s early paintings, gained new meaning after he became a political figure. It was actually used in a 1795 campaign against Robespierre, the main instigator of the “Reign of Terror” and the rampant guillotining that came with it (1).
1. David Irwin, Neoclassicism (London; Phaidon Press Limited, 1997), 143 - 153.
2. “Jacques-Louis David: The Death of Socrates (31.45)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/31.45 (October 2006)