Analyzing a painting is like analyzing any other document. A keen eye is required, and subtext is just as important.
Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) was a renowned neoclassical artist and politico, with much of his most famous work being produced during the throes of the French Revolution in the late 1700s.
In his 1793 work, The Death of Marat, David details an idealized death of Jean-Paul Marat, a radical populist and journalist linked to the revolution and the Jacobins, as David himself was. The painting highlights the effect of class warfare and friction between the aristocracy, clergy, nobility, and third estate,and juxtaposes posh, bourgeois portrayals of an increasingly despotic ruling class from the harsh reality that is the blood and grittiness of revolution.
The painting itself is visually bleak and lifeless, yet a stunning display of hyperreality and humanity, in contrast to some of the other paintings of David during this time of revolutionary upheaval. At the same time, it is in keeping with familiar elements from the artist in the forms of his signature symbolic idealization of the subject.
The Death of Marat features a cinematic scene — a bloody knife, a crumpled letter, and a pale corpse majestically draped over the side of a bathtub. This shocking frame is missing the murderer, Charlotte Corday of the Girondin Party, who saw Marat as partially at fault for the destruction of the French Revolution and killed the sickly man in his home.
Marat, on the other hand, saw the Girondin party as opponents of republicanism. The painting romantically depicts the populist crusader’s death on April 24, 1793, just months after Louis XVI was guillotined.
To understand the painting’s context amidst the backdrop of the Revolution, one must understand Jacques-Louis David’s political role, the factions of the war, and the neoclassical resurgence of the time period amid growing enlightenment thought. This period of revolution marked the beginning of a shift from the rule of kings to the rule of citizens and ultimately toward the rights of man.