s, representations of the past)French Revolution-Death of Marat(painting analysis, representations of the past)The Death of Marat , is an idealistic portraitpainted by Jacques-Louis David, depicting the assassination of one of theleaders of the French Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was a prominentmember of a group of people called the Jacobins, and founder of a controversialnewspaper publication, LAmi du Peuple (“the Friend of the People).
Through the title of his paper, he became widely acknowledged as just that.
Marat used his “the Friend of the People” publication frequently to callfor popular violence against politicians. Marat was a part of a group ofpeople called the Sans Culottes. The Sans Culottes supported Marat, andMarat had an influence over them. The main target of his calls were largelya group of people called the Girondins. The Jacobins blamed the Girondinsfor the defeats on the battlefield and the rising prices of food.
On the second of June the Sans-Culottes,supporters of the Jacobins, forced their way into the Convention and expelledthe leading Girondins . Many of the expelled Girondins fled Paris,in fear of facing the recently invented guillotine. Many fled to theirprovinces. In doing so they triggered off revolts in the provinces whichsupported the Girondins. By the summer of 1793, sixty out of eighty-threedepartments had joined the rebellion against the government.
Faced with such immense problems, on Aprilthe 6th, the Convention set up an emergency group called the Committeeof Public Safety. This was quite a contradiction of terms, as on Septemberthe 17th “The Law of Suspects” came into effect. ” The Law of Suspects”started a period referred to as the “Reign of Terror”. During this periodgroups of citizens in every town were required to write up lists of peoplesuspected of opposing the government. Citizens of whatever sex, age, orcondition were ruthlessly executed purely for being suspected of opposingthe government; “public safety” was in fact at an all time low. Marat wasvocal in support of the executions, and this was what ultimately led tohis demise. On July 13th 1793 Charlotte Corday, a woman with Girondin sympathiesgained entry to Marats apartment and murdered him.
Subsequently Jacques-Louis David was “commissionedby the convention ” to paint a portrait of Marat. The function of Davidspainting was to ensure that the momentum of the revolution kept movingforward. If Marat was to be a symbol for maintaining the momentumof the revolution then David needed to portray him in the most appealingpossible way, as “friend of the People”; a martyr. Obviously then, Davidcould not portray Marat as old and ill. Davids aim was to indeed constructimages of the secular saint . By depicting Marat in such a martyrlike fashion David ensured that Marats political ideologies would liveon. With Davids painting displaying such sympathies towards Marat he helpedthe Sans Culottes strengthen support which in turn ensured Marat’s andthe Sans Cullotes ideals would therefore continue the momentum of the revolutionmoving forward. The assassination of Marat sent shockwaves through Paris.
The fact that a “Girondin” had infiltrated Paris, and killed a leadingrevolutionary figure in his own home scared many leaders (in particularRobspierre) who now feared the same could easily happen to them. They neededto ensure Marats death would raise sympathies with their parties and quashany future counter-revolutionary assassinations.
David had previously shown an aptitudefor painting historical events. One of his most famous is that of “TheOath the Horatii” . In this painting David depicts precisely what the FrenchRevolution came to represent. The painting depicts three brothers declaringthat they would fight to their death as champions of their city againstthat of a rival city, for the common good of the people . The subject ofThe Oath of the Horatii is dedication and sacrifice.
This same theme was present in Davidsportrayal of Marat. David shows a Marat who sacrificed his life forthe people of his country. In his hand Marat holds a letter. In the letterCorday pleads for assistance. This is an historical inaccuracy by David,showing the problems of representing the past, as this particularletter was never actually shown to Marat. It was only to be used by Cordayto gain access to Marat if her first attempt to see him should fail . Itis the distortion and manipulation of the facts such these that artistsused to further a particular point of view or cause.
Lying beside Marat there also lies anassignat upon a wooden crate; the assignat reads “You will give this assignatto that mother of five children whose husband died defending the fatherland”This document “near Marats hand are the unanswerable documents of hissaintliness . This document furthers Davids attempts to portray Maratas a hero who was genuinely concerned with the plight of the people ofFrance.
In Marat’s right hand is the pen withwhich he had been writing, and draped over part of the bathtub is a cloth,which serves as a desk. By attempting to paint Marat as a “friend of thepeople”, and Corday as someone who falsely appealed to his generosity atthe very moment he was responding to a citizens needs , David clearly displaysbias. This however contrasts to other representations of the event, asit was said at the trial of Corday that her decision to stab Marat dependedupon the response of Marat upon hearing of the opposition . Marats reactionto hearing of the opposition was “Good, in a few days I will have themall guillotined” The contrast is of him being shown as “friend ofthe people” on one hand, yet on the other, he was a vengeful man who hadgreat power and could use it.
Further inaccuracies by David are evident.
The appalling skin disease is not apparent. Instead we are faced with animage of a young healthy man. The old wooden crate, and the white sheetwhich covers his head complete with a patch, they are all aimed at drawingattention to the poverty and inglorious surroundings in which Marat lived.
Furthermore the paintings background is dull; the walls are undecoratedand scant of any colour. In reality the walls of Marats “were decoratedwith elegant wallpaper and decorations to beautify the interior””David was asked by the Convention topaint Marats portrait, so it could be said that The Death of Marat wascommissioned work” . Davids personal perspective is incorporated intothe painting. The fact that his painting drew large crowds suggests thathis interpretation would have had wide ranging influence ,gaining supportfor the Jacobins and persuaded the way Parisians perceived Marat, despitethe paintings inaccuracies. His images showed the power of art to electrifyeven the most common citizen. David could have indeed chosen to painta glorious portrait of Marat, instead we see Marat in a bathtub, surroundedby poverty, inglorious and defenceless, again Davids bias is prevalent.
This shows the problems historians face when dealing with history as eventsare often tainted by inaccuracies such as the assignat , and therefor representationscannot be taken on face value alone.
Davids bias in painting this picturestems from his friendship with Marat and a mixture of admiration, and tryingto depict Marat as a symbol of the revolution. Davids advantage in attemptingto do this was that his representation of Marat was easily absorbed andwidely viewed by the public, effortlessly influencing public opinion andcontinuing the momentum of the revolution moving forward..
Marat is slumped in the bathtub, handoutstretched, lying motionless, in a lifeless picture of tranquillity andpeace. Marats is portrayed in a similar pose to sculptor Michelangelosmasterpiece Pieta , which depicts Christ, arm outstretched as David depictedMarat. The significance is the inference that Marat sacrificed himselffor the good of the people , just as Christ is said to have done.
Other religious elements are also prominent, the halo like turban aroundMarats head, and the heavenly light shining upon Marats angelic face. Itwas Marats aim to “construct images of a secular saint”The portrayal of Marat in this way contrastswith other accounts of Marat. Marat up until the moments before his deathwas a violent man who totally supported the executions of all those whoopposed the government. Marat was once known to have said, “In order toensure public tranquillity 200,000 heads must be cut off”.
Joseph Roques also depicts Maratin the Pieta like pose. It alerts us to how representations of the pastoften substitute reality for a cause, in this case the revolution.
The Jacobins set forth to prosper fromMarats high status. Various changes made throughout France reflected thisand promoted the Jacobin parties cause. “Place names were altered so thatMontmartre became Mont-Marat; rue des Cordeliers, the rue Marat, and overthirty communes throughout the Republic incorporated the martyr in theirnew name” . Marat dead was perhaps more useful to the Jacobins than theunpredictable, choleric live politician.
When analysing representations from thepast we must recognise motivating factors behind representations. In atime when violence was so prevalent “actuality” was replaced by inaccurateimages resulting in historical misrepresentations. This was partlydue to the fear people experienced , partly due to sympathies people held.
David supported the Jacobins and so this representation was biased, givingonly the Jacobins perspective, not at all representing the views of Cordayor the Girondins who particularly hated Marat. All reflections in historyare biased documents. This is because the various problems experiencedthroughout history such as differing political viewpoints and loyaltiesaffect the reliability and accuracy of historical representations. Thesedifferences affect peoples reflections, and afterthoughts of an event orexperience , meaning what one person perceives and interprets in a certainway can be totally different to another individuals point of view . Subsequentlywe must question representations of the past , such as Davids “The Deathof Marat” and the validity of opposing views.