Death of Socrates Painting by Jacques-Louis David Analysis

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In my research paper I analyze the historical picture “The Death of Socrates” (Oil on Canvas, 51” х771/4 1787, Metropolitan Museum of Art), painted by the French painter neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David. My work involves a close examination of that particular painting.

David’s controversial painting depicts the last moments of life of the greatest Athenian philosopher – Socrates. The government of Athens condemned Socrates for death or for exile for being an atheist and for his teaching methods which awoke skeptical thinking and criticism in his disciples. Socrates accepted death from drinking poison and heroically rejected exile. In particular, Jacques-Louis David depicted the scene where the great philosopher, surrounded by his friends, is sitting on the couch and reaching the cup of hemlock and is pronouncing his final words. The controversy of the painting lays in the opposition of death and life, self-control and the state of being emotionally overwhelmed, evil and good, true and wrong. The main idea of the picture – the victory of mind over death – is brightly expressed with the help of the setting, distribution of light and dark. Also my analysis of the picture will comprise the following characters: Socrates himself, the characters of philosopher’s friends and disciples, the wife of Socrates. In addition, I will set the historical background for my analysis and provide it with the necessary proofs and quotations from the reliable sources.

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The author of the painting “The Death of Socrates”, Jacques-Louis David, was born on August 30, 1748 in a wealthy family of a Parisian merchant. He received his first education at a boarding school the Collège des Quatre Nations in his native city. Then David became a student of a famous professor Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), who had a reputation of a good teacher and produced a great impact on the development of a young artist. From 1766 to 1774 Jacques-Louis David studied art in Vein’s class at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In his paintings David created a new cult of the civic virtues – his main characters serve as perfect models of stoical self-sacrifice, austerity, devotion to duty and honesty. Thus the artist attempted to pass his revolutionary ideas through his works and later he became known as “the painter of revolution”. Also the modern critics of art noted that David’s paintings of ‘martyrs of the Revolution’ were devised as portraits, nevertheless, raised portraiture into the domain of the universal tragedy[1].

At those days the most influential and prevalent movement in painting and other arts was Neoclassicism (early works in the 1960s with its peak period in the 1780s and ’90s, and lasted till 1840s and ’50s). Typical neoclassical features in painting became apparent in the form of an emphasis on austere linear design of pictures with utilization of classical themes, paying much attention to archaeologically correct settings and costumes with as much historical accuracy as possible. Particularly, France was the place of vigorous rise of Neoclassical painting style in the 1780s.  Jacques-Louis David took a leading role in the developing process of the style. In history painting death has meaning, within the structure of a telos that makes the “moment” of the death and its representation in painting a significant moment[2]. Thematically this often takes the form of death as martyrdom. During the Revolution, this involved the exhibition of real dead bodies as well as painted ones.

Basing on the common features associated with Roman Republic and contemporary France neoclassical painters often resorted to famous literary works as a source of inspiration for their paintings. The general motives and sometimes even the components of the representation of the ancient famous figures are derived from the writings of the Ancients as interpreted in the eighteenth century. Cinquin observes that mythic Greece at that time experienced a dramatic indirect revival in the instructions given by Napoleon to the Empire’s architects for the “Romanization” of Paris to commemorate the glory of his reign. However, along with the neoclassical tradition, a modern trend emerged imposing a novel set of pictorial and literary signs pertaining to Greece[3].

Thus, The Death of Socrates is an outstanding example where the application of famous literary work, in this case Plato’s Phaedo, as painter’s source of inspiration is apparent. In his painting The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, avoids a standard exemplifying a scene from Plato’s narrative. His work illustrates a thematic integrity of pre- and post-revolutionary France. He exemplifies the representation of Greece according to eighteenth-century norms; he chooses a different perspective for illustrating the last moments of philosopher’s life. David’s Greek philosopher is allegory that embodies a moral commitment to his homeland. Socrates chose death instead of accepting exile from native city state. In David’s painting, “Socrates faces death in a posture that is itself an exhortation to his disciples to follow the path of virtue, at which he is pointing his finger”[4].

David’s Socrates is depicted without sensual appeal, deprived of revelation of any feelings. David and the other neoclassical painters tended to present the ideal Greek body stern and austere. The strictness of the painting is also perceived through the color of the flesh, with a shallow brown hue. Though it is known that Socrates was not the holder of perfect body the harmony and the proportions with which David presents his athletic stature unveils a tendency to the ideal perfection that Greek artistic traditions supposedly reached. The manner of looking, frowned and concentrated gaze, underlines something that can be interpreted as a deep perception of patriotic duty that transcends the personal feelings and destiny.

This painting is not just a simple biographical interpretation of Socrates’ death; it involves the interpreting approach to famous even and allows drawing a parallel between two epochs. According to Dorothy Johnson, as she maintains in her book, “the principle of the significant moment’ is intrinsic to projects of historical or narrative representation that aim at an order of intelligibility more complex than that of simple chronology. The significant moment gives conceptual purchase on the flux of events, permits relations and proportions of backgrounding and foregrounding, and in the eighteenth century, as models of historical inquiry moved from the chronological to the more searchingly analytical, it became an object of methodological self-consciousness”.[5]

The close study of the painting reveals the idea of marginal treatment of the piece of art, as Bryson has discussed in his article, David manipulates marginal elements in The Death of Socrates. This attention to the marginal in an image “keeps dialectic between its two sides going at full strength.”[6] Bryson observes that the central position of David theme is shifted both in relation to the interpreted narrative (according to Bryson “the image comes from the edge of a text”[7]) and in relation to the composition and figural details. So in the painting Socrates’ excited disciples avert their gazes from their master’s patience.  Such David’s utilization of marginal elements provokes the spectator to have some feeling of sympathy evoked on one side by the severity and on the other side by tenderness.[8]

The setting of the picture is a prison where Socrates is waiting for the execution of his unjust death sentence. The cell is dark, not lightened and very somber. The artist does not put much furniture in it. We can see only the wooden bed and some small benches, which add realism to the painting. The walls of the cell are also obscure and thus it is difficult to differentiate their true color. On the whole, the cell where Socrates spends the last minutes of his life can be a symbol of the outer world – the world where darkness and unfairness are predominating. The perceived reality of this world can be philosophically explained in such a way: we all have to linger in the place where there are vague borders between light and dark, good and bad, true and wrong. Philosophically life itself can be compared with such a cell and death in this case can be viewed as a long-awaited release.

Socrates is the central figure in the picture and the painter intentionally emphasizes his face with a bright flash of light. It seems that the philosopher is shining like a lantern for the rest of the people and this light draws a strong opposition to the gloominess of the whole cell. Philosopher’s face is calm and peaceful. Socrates takes a cup of hemlock but there is no fear or anxiety seen in his eyes. He faces his death with serenity and keeps adherence to his principles and ideals.

The specific distribution the dark and light strokes of painter’s brush in The Death of Socrates creates the significant implication about divine character of the central figure. As I have already mentioned the windows and the lamp which is found on the background of the painting are not the only and what’ more far not main sources of light in the scene. But the true source of light that pours onto Socrates and his disciples remains unknown to the viewer; however it serves its primary function to indicate the divinity of Socrates. Besides the play upon light and shadow, with the same purpose to underscore Socrates’ exceptional role, David inclines to use antique manner of depicting body – with flawless proportions and athletic stature. Socrates’ posture is straight and tense, he sits like a father among his sons, and the air is replete with his wisdom and power which are symbolized by his grey beard.

Socrates gesture and posture without anything supporting his back exemplify he readiness to devote his life and even give it up, much like the Greek Gods would be expected to do, rather than break own beliefs and moral principles. In the painting Socrates is pointing up his finger and raising his hand so that it is higher than other figures. These details also add to the special meaning of the Socrates, his strength of principals and philosophical teaching for the French.

Very popular and of current importance was the notion of freedom at the David’s days in France. Thus, depicting Socrates without any support behind his back, as well as lying on the floor torn shackles build up the feeling of  freedom from the outward world, freedom from unfair justice, freedom to choose own destiny, even if it is death.

On the background of the painting we see his wife and family who have been taken away from the chamber where Socrates was preparing to drink the poison.  According to the story told in the Phaedo Socrates asked to remove his family because he was afraid of getting too emotional and his last request was to die in omened silence.

The character of Socrates in David’s painting is deep, symbolic and meaningful in many ways. I think that Socrates represents the victory of mind over death. With his conduct in the last moments of his life he demonstrated indifference to the common feeing of fear of death. His calmness and peacefulness serve as evidence for immortality of the moral spirit of the philosopher. Even during his last moments of living he still teaches his disciples. Additionally, by behaving in this way Socrates teaches his contemporaries and modern generation.

To conclude, it is worth noting that visually and formally, The Death of Socrates is a masterpiece; it is a painterly display of perfect beauty and skill. The treatment of the topic is fresh, spontaneous, bold, appropriately morbid yet tender, tranquil and yet emotionally charged neoclassical style.


1. Bryson, Norman. “Centres and Margins in David” Word and Image 4, 1988: 43-50

In this article the attention is given to David’s paintings that are somehow related to the narratives. It discusses the details of particular works such as The Death of Socrates, Brutus, etc. This article provided me with new ideas and vision of The Death of Socrates..

2. Cinquin, Chantal. “Greece or the Experience of the Lost Signifier in Post-revolutionary France.” Symposium Journal, Vol. 43, 1989: 158 – 171.

This article reveals how the Greek ancient art influenced the French artistic movement after French revolution and among others the work of Jacques-Louis David are examined. The article also presents the juxtaposition of David with Eugène Delacroix as representatives of two divergent styles, which, however, both exploited Greek themes. The author provides his own view on David’s style

            3. Welch, David. “Painting, Propaganda and Patriotism: David Welch Looks at the Way That Public Art Was Used in Both France and Britain to Celebrate Napoleon and Nelson as National Heroes, during Their Lifetimes and After” History Today. Volume: 55. July 2005: 42-51.

This article was an excellent presentation of non-conventional treatment of artistic legacy of Jacques-Louis David. After reading this article I got the idea how the artistic work in Napoleonic France could have been used for propaganda purposes. Though it does not deal with particular works of the artist, still it helped me to grasp the general notion on the significance of David’s work and his school.


1. Bordes, Philippe Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile. Clark Art Institute, 2005.

The newest view upon David’s artistic career is presented in this book. It presents the artist as a controversial figure in the political and art history of France. This book was useful as a source for information on the roles of David’s works, such as The Death of Socrates and others.

2. Brookner, Anita. Jacques-Louis David. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

This book provides a scholarly analysis of the life and works of the great neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David. The author places his works within the historical context and presents the clear overview of the revolutionary epoch in France. In this book I found a realistic portrayal of this radical revolutionary artist.

3. Dowd, David Lloyd. Pageant-Master of the Republic: Jacques-Louis David and the French Revolution. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1948.

The David’s biographer Down presents the excellent source for biographical and historical facts that attributed to the formation of artist’s style. The book provides the explanations for the themes and motives of David’s works as well as interprets some symbolic roles of the artist’s painting technique. It is a good source for interpretation of  David’s paintings.

4. Johnson, Dorothy. Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis. Princeton University Press, 1993.

The book by Dorothy Johnson gives a prolific information on David career as a revolutionary artist and artistic concept. She reveals the constant development and alteration of his painting style. The book served for me as a well designed guide that includes all stages of David’s creativity as well as a sourse of specific treatment of this artist.

5. Muther, Richard. The history of Modern Painting Vol.1 J.M. Dent & Co., 1907.

Muther’s book presents the comprehensive material on the history of the painting art which gives the solid background for understanding and comprehension of Jacques-Louis David’s work in the context of art history. Chapter IV of the Volume I provided me with the information on historical events that influenced the development of painting in France and in particular on the David’s political activity and his role in French Revolution, describing him as “ardent Revolutionist” that obviously are reflected in his paintings.

Jacques-Louis David (France, Paris)
The Death of Socrates

Oil on canvas (1, 30 x 1, 96 m), 1787

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (USA)

French painting, c. XVIII-XIX
[1] Bordes, Philippe Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile
[2] Dorothy Johnson, Jacques-Louis David, 99.
[3] Cinquin Chantal, Greece or the Experience of the Lost Signifier in Post-revolutionary France, 159
[4] Cit. Cinquin Chantal, Greece or the Experience of the Lost Signifier in Post-revolutionary France, 160
[5] Cit. Dorothy Johnson, Jacques Louis David: Art and Metamorphosis (Princeton, 1993), 84.
[6] Bryson, Norman. Centres and Margins in David (Word and Image 4, 1988), 45.
[7] Bryson, Norman. Centres and Margins in David (Word and Image 4, 1988), 45.
[8] Bryson, Norman. Centres and Margins in David (Word and Image 4, 1988).

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