Famous Painting: The Death of Socrates – Art Critique

This is an Art Critique of the Famous Painting- The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis Daveed.

The Death of Socrates by jacques-louis daveed completed in 1787.  It is an exemplar of the neoclassical period in France, which de’vide virtually created and brought to the fore himself.  Before I say more about this famous painting, it’s important to note just how striking this canvas is not knowing anything about it, so much jumps out at me right away, the clarity of the scene, the fierce gesture of the man in the middle, the interplay of the chalice, and the hand that reaches for it the angles of the light, and the men the soft draping garments the bare flat stone wall as the title suggests the scene depicts the death of Socrates told famously by Plato in his dialogue on the soul the Phaedo. 

Socrates had been convicted in Athenian court of failing to acknowledge the gods of the city and corrupting the city’s youth.  He was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock as Plato makes clear in another dialogue, the Crito Socrates could have escaped into exile but instead he chooses to die taking the opportunity to teach his final lesson that death is not to be feared by the philosopher, but embraced as an apotheosis of the soul.

In this famous painting, Davi chooses to paint the moment just as Socrates is grabbing for the poisoned draught.  He’s been discussing at length the immortality of the soul, and doesn’t even seem to care that he’s about to take the implement of his death in hand.  On the contrary, Socrates is defiant gesturing toward the afterlife to which he hastens.  Devide idealizes him.  Socrates would have been 70 at the time and somewhat less muscular and beautiful than painted here. 

The raking light coming in from the top-left pours onto Socrates the brightest figure in the tableau.  The colors muted at the sides become vivid in the center with the executioner in red and Socrates and white.  For devide, Socrates is a symbol of strength over passion of stoic commitment to an abstract principle even in the face of death, this is the ethical message daveed sought to offer the French two years for the French Revolution as the monarchy was in decline and reformers ache to install a democracy akin to that of Socrates own time in Greek antiquity or of the United States which had just executed its own revolution five years prior indeed Thomas Jefferson himself was present at the unveiling of this painting at the salon of 1787. 

The image commissioned by two radical political reformers, was wildly popular.  Daveed had already made his name with another severe moralistic canvass; the oath of the Horatio, which effectively invented the neoclassical style.  Taking its cues from the stark simplicity of ancient Greece and Rome, from the ancient obsession with anatomy and musculature from the two-dimensional freezes depicting historical events. 

Neoclassicism as rendered by devii, made its points strongly and severely.  This was in direct opposition to the dominant Rococo style, that reflected the ornate and hedonistic lifestyles of the monarchy in the hooray she I.  As in the death of Socrates, those dedicated to principle are depicted with angular geometry while those ruled by passion are curved and weak in both canvases, the backgrounds are flat fixing attention on the foreground.

We’re like a freeze, the action can be read from side to side one way to read the death of Socrates is right to left the anguish of Socrates followers curling and twisting opens up unto the calm expression of the man himself and flows down through his right arm which hovers over the cup of poison……

to be continued…

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