15 Things You Should Know About Jacques-Louis David's 'Death of Socrates'

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Long before he was regarded as a pioneer of the Neoclassical style, 18th-century French painter Jacques-Louis David was fascinated by history, enamored by ancient art, and determined to use his works to change the world. With The Death of Socrates, he brought politics into painting, shook up the art scene, and won major admirers ahead of the French Revolution.

1. THE DEATH OF SOCRATES DEPICTED A REAL AND TRULY HORRIFIC EVENT.

In 399 BCE, the Athenian courts convicted the philosopher Socrates of impiety, declaring he was corrupting the youth and had failed to worship the city's gods. He was sentenced to execution by hemlock poisoning. His protégé Plato recounted in the Phaedo that Socrates did not run from nor cry over his impending demise. Instead, he treated his execution as his final lesson. Taking the poison before his students, he did so while lecturing about how he believed in the immortality of the soul, and so did not fear death. Nonetheless, his friends and students wept around him.

2. IT'S AN IDEALIZED PORTRAIT OF SOCRATES.

At the time of his execution, Socrates would have been about 70 years old, and was unlikely to have looked quite so fit. But a beefier body wasn't his only upgrade. Comparing The Death of Socrates to busts of the famed philosopher, it's clear David gave him a makeover with a softer profile and less bulbous nose.

3. PLATO MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Socrates sits just off center of the painting, reaching for the cup of poison, while giving a pointed speech. At the foot of the bed, turned away from him, is an old man with a beard and white robes. This is David's depiction of Plato, who wasn't actually present at the scene. Notably, he chose to make the Phaedo author look much older than he would have been at the time. Plato was roughly 29 when Socrates died.

4. DAVID BROKE FROM THE FACTS TO MAKE HIS MASTERPIECE.

David studied the Phaedo and conversed with scholar Father Jean Félicissme Adry, among others. But David did not feel beholden to his research. He made Plato older, Socrates fitter. He excluded some attendees from the scene, yet included both Plato and Apollodorus of Phaleron, a student of Socrates who the philosopher had kicked out for his intense display of grief. Apollodorus is the curly-haired blond who has thrown himself against the pillar inside the arch.

5. SOCRATES'S WIFE XANTHIPPE IS THERE TOO.

Look past all the weeping students, past the sullen Plato, into the hallway, where a woman in dusty pink robes waves her hand. That's Socrates's wife, seemingly regarded as an afterthought.

6. DAVID SIGNED THIS PIECE TWICE, AND WITH PURPOSE.

"L. David" can be spotted on the gray bench on which a man in a coral robe sits. That is Crito, an agriculturist and companion of Socrates depicted in Plato's works. It's believed this signature placement means David related most to Crito. The writer Victor Moeller has suggested this means the painter saw himself as someone who "clutches at the morals and values that Socrates represents," which is suggested by how Crito clutches at the philosopher's thigh.

The other signature is just his initials, L.D. They can be found on the bench where Plato sits. Art historians believe this is a sort of citation to the source material, nodding to Plato's contribution to this painting via his Phaedo.

7. IT WASN'T JUST HISTORY. IT WAS PROPAGANDA.

A few years ahead of the French Revolution, The Death of Socrates was commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, two radical political reformers who were calling for an upheaval of French norms by promoting a free market system. To them, Socrates was a hero who sacrificed himself to his principles rather than accepting banishment and shame. In this painting of stoicism in the face of death, David was creating a clarion call for how the rebels should push toward their goals, not with cowardice and outcry like Socrates's students—save for Plato and Crito!—but with self-control, honor, and fearlessness.

8. IT MIGHT BE INTENDED TO BE READ RIGHT TO LEFT.

In his video essay "The Death of Socrates: How To Read A Painting," writer Evan Puschak argues that the painting is meant to be read like an ancient Roman frieze. If perceived through this lens, first the viewer would take in the wailing students, and perhaps wonder why they cry. Then they'd regard Socrates, lecturing and strong. Then, in the direct center of the painting, the cup of poison, hanging heavy with threat and finality. Next is the red-robed student so rattled he can't even look at his teacher in this final moment. Lastly, we'd regard the old man on the bench, Plato, left behind to tell the story that survived his friend and mentor.

9. READING IT LEFT TO RIGHT OFFERS A DIFFERENT BUT STILL PLAUSIBLE INTERPRETATION.

Puschak notes that Socrates became famous because of Plato's writings about him and his philosophies. With this in mind, you could regard The Death of Socrates left to right and see it as essentially being about Plato. In this context, the philosopher is thinking back on that fatal day. Behind him the death of Socrates plays out as memory—vibrant, beautiful, and bittersweet.

10. THE MUTED COLOR PALETTE MIGHT BE DUE TO DAVID'S CRITICS.

In 1784, David debuted Oath of Horatii, which depicted a Roman legend with vibrant colors of crimson and blue. This palette was panned by critics, who called it "garish." As such, art historians suspect that David chose to subdue his reds in this piece. Notably, the colors grow more vibrant toward the center of the painting, thus drawing our eyes to Socrates and the young man holding the cup of poison.

11. THIS WAS ONE OF SEVERAL POLITICALLY MOTIVATED DEATH PORTRAITS DAVID PAINTED.

Outraged by the French monarchy, David became a passionate member of the Jacobin Club, a radical democratic group born during the French Revolution. He used his skills as a painter to benefit their cause whenever possible. As the years went by, David grew bolder, moving away from ancient history as allegory and painting more recent events to engage his audience. In 1793 and 1794, he memorialized French Revolutionaries with The Death of Marat, The Last Moments of Michel Lepeletier, and The Death of Young Bara.

12. THE DEATH OF SOCRATES FLEW IN THE FACE OF WHAT WAS POPULAR IN PAINTING.

At this time, Rococo was all the rage. This late 18th-century French artistic movement embraced light colors, ornate compositions, curves, whimsy, and luxurious gold tones. In David's painting, the focal point is a man made of angular geometry; those whose spines curve around him are perceived as weak. The colors are more vibrant, the composition detailed but not florid, the subject life and death, not whimsy.

13. YET THE DEATH OF SOCRATES WAS GREATLY PRAISED IN ITS TIME.

The painting debuted at a Paris salon on August 25, 1787. It's unknown how long its exhibition lasted, but what is known is that Thomas Jefferson was one of its earliest admirers. According to art historian Narim Bender, influential English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds compared it to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Stanze rooms. After visiting the salon nine more times to view it, he declared The Death of Socrates "in every sense perfect."

14. THAT VERY SALON WAS DEPICTED IN A FAMOUS ENGRAVING.

Italian artist Pietro Antonio Martini expressed his admiration over this epic exhibition by creating the breathlessly detailed depiction Exposition au Salon du Louvre en 1787. The piece captures numerous visitors, walls full of paintings, and The Death of Socrates. You can find it near the center of the painting, in the bottom row. Just below the large portrait of a woman in a gown, it stands out with its gaping archway hovering above a trio of chatting guests.

15. TODAY THE DEATH OF SOCRATES IS REGARDED AS A DEFINING PIECE IN THE NEOCLASSICAL STYLE.

Though Oath of Horatii was criticized for its color, it's now viewed as the start of the Neoclassical style. But it was the critical reception and popularity of The Death of Socrates that both cemented the style and brought it to the attention of the world. Neoclassicism found inspiration in ancient Greek and Roman art's focus on anatomy and musculature, the stark simplicity of their statues, and the two-dimensional friezes that captured historical events. Essentially, David took these inspirations and gave them new life in relevance with oil paints.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which proudly houses The Death of Socrates today, declares it as "arguably the artist’s most perfect statement of the Neoclassical style."

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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8 Times People Ruined Priceless Works of Art

Antonio Canova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Antonio Canova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

“Don’t touch the art” is a simple rule, enacted by almost every gallery and museum in the world. Yet for some reason, there are a select few who choose to ignore it, either because their curiosity gets the best of them, or, in a surprising number of cases, because they're on a quest for the perfect selfie. Whatever their motives, the museum-goers below left a trail of mangled artwork in their wakes.

1. Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix

If any lesson should be taken from art gallery mishaps, it’s that you should never use a valuable work of art as a piece of furniture. In July 2020, an unnamed tourist from Austria decided to luxuriate on the plaster cast of Antonio Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (1804) at Italy’s Antonio Canova Museum to make his selfie look as casual as possible. (Bonaparte was Napoleon’s sister.) In doing so, he crumbled the toes of poor Pauline, who is depicted in the sculpture as reclining on a cushion. Surveillance footage shows the man acknowledging the loss of the extremities before walking away. Police later identified him from a museum reservation. He apologized for the accident and offered to pay for the restoration work.

2. Dom Sebastiao Statue

In 2016, a 24-year-old visiting Lisbon, Portugal, made a very bad call when he climbed onto a 126-year-old statue installed on the facade of Lisbon, Portugal's Rossio Train Station to snap a selfie. The freestanding statue, which depicted 16th century king Dom Sebastiao, toppled over and shattered on the ground. The tourist, who attempted to flee, was caught by the authorities and eventually forced to appear in front of a judge; Portugal's infrastructure department has no information about when the statue will be fixed.

3. Statua Dei Due Ercole

Hercules might have had the strength of the Gods, but unfortunately, that toughness didn't translate to sculptures of him. In 2016, two tourists visiting the Loggia dei Militi Palace in Cremona, Italy, damaged the 300-year-old Statua dei due Ercole (Statue of Two Hercules) when they climbed on it to take a selfie. The tourists were reportedly hanging off the crown of one of the marble figures—which held the town's emblem between them—when it gave way, falling to the ground. The tourists were charged with vandalism, and the government called in experts to assess the damage.

4. Ecce Homo

The most famous (read: hilarious) art "restoration" in history might be 80-year-old Cecilia Gimenez’s attempt to fix a deteriorating fresco painting at a church in Borja, Spain. Her new and improved art made international headlines and inspired endless internet memes in 2012. Saturday Night Live even worked the news into their Weekend Update segment a couple of times, with Kate McKinnon playing Gimenez.

The painting, a depiction of Jesus Christ by artist Elías García Martínez in the 1930s, was flaking due to moisture; Gimenez, a parishioner at the church, worked off a 10-year-old photo of the fresco while doing her restoration. When her work was revealed, Ecce Homo was redubbed "Potato Jesus." Gimenez told a Spanish TV station that she had approval to work on the fresco (which authorities deny), and had done so during the day. “The priest knew it,” she said. “I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.”

Though the church had originally planned to work with art restorers to fix the fresco, by 2014 they had changed their tune. Gimenez's artwork became a major tourist attraction, bringing 150,000 visitors from around the world and revitalizing Borja. The church charged $1.25 a head to see the artwork, which was preserved behind plexiglass, just like another very famous, memeworthy work of art: the Mona Lisa. A center dedicated to the interpretation of the new Ecce Homo opened in 2016.

5. Qing Dynasty Vases

Rule number one for entering any space with priceless art: tie your shoelaces. In February 2006, a man named Nick Flynn took the wrong staircase inside the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England—and when he tried to change course, he accidentally stepped on his own untied shoelace and fell. With no handrails to grab, the only thing to break his fall were three Qing Dynasty vases from the 1600s and 1700s, which were sitting on a windowsill. Flynn was unhurt, but the vases, worth more than $100,000, were not so lucky: They shattered into 400 pieces.

"Although [I knew] the vase would break I didn't imagine it would be loose and crash into the other two," he said. "I'm sure I only hit the first one and that must have flown across the windowsill and hit the next one, which then hit the other, like a set of dominos." Flynn, who was reportedly banned from the museum, called the incident “just one of those unbelievably unlucky things that can sometimes happen.”

This story has something of a happy ending, though: By August 2006, Penny Bendall, a ceramic restorer, had glued one of the vases—which had broken into 113 pieces—back together for an exhibition on art restoration. "Putting the vase back together may have looked impossible to most people but actually it wasn't a difficult job—fairly straightforward," she told the Daily Mail.

6. Annunciazione

Should you be given a pass for breaking something if it was technically already broken? In 2013, a Missouri man visiting Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy, wanted to see how the pinky finger of a 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary by Giovanni d’Ambrogio measured up next to his own. You know what happened next: The man got a little too close and damaged the statue's digit. Thankfully, the finger that he broke was made of plaster and not original to the sculpture, and art restorers grabbed it quickly before it could fall and be further damaged. The man apologized, and restorers at the museum made plans to repair the finger again. Hopefully the second fix was more permanent.

7. The Drunken Satyr

The good news is this Milan statue, which lost its left leg to an unknown selfie enthusiast in 2014, was a replica of another statue that dates back to 220 BCE. The bad news is that the replica was still very valuable and pretty old, dating back to the 1800s. Security cameras in that area of the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera weren't working when the incident occurred, but according to the Daily Mail, witnesses saw a student tourist climb onto the statue and sit on its knee to take a photo. What the student didn't realize was that the statue, made of terra cotta and plaster, had been assembled in pieces, and the leg was already partially detached; museum director Franco Marrocco told the Corriere della Sera that the museum was already planning to restore the statue before the accident.

8. The Actor

A 6-foot-tall Picasso painting is pretty hard to miss when it’s hung on a museum wall, just as the visitor who fell into one back in January 2010 discovered. A woman was attending a class at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art when she lost her footing and tumbled into The Actor, leaving a 6-inch tear as well as a dent in the lower right corner of the 1904 artwork. “We saw the big, coarse threads that looked sort of like a nasty jute rug,” Gary Tinterow, chairman of the museum’s department of 19th Century, Modern and Contemporary art, said in an interview. “The question was how to get Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

That process took three months. Lucy Belloli, a conservator at the Met, told The New York Times that the process involved photographing the canvas, securing flakes of paint with adhesive, and using strips of paper with rabbit-skin glue as bandages, as well as a six-week period of realigning the painting using small sand bags. ("[T]he torn portion of the canvas had to be gently coaxed back to its flat state, otherwise it would have a tendency to return to the distortion left by the accident," the Times explained.) Some retouching was also necessary. The painting was returned to the wall in April 2010 with a layer of Plexiglass to protect it; most visitors would not have been able to tell the painting was ever damaged.

This story has been updated for 2020.