A strangely hypnotic portrait, Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat has emerged as one of the most famous images of the blood-soaked French Revolution. The history behind this morbid masterpiece is even richer than its color palette.
1. The Death of Marat depicts a gruesome political murder.
Outspoken journalist and notable member of the Montagnards, Jean-Paul Marat would never see the French Revolution's conclusion in 1799. On July 13th of 1793, the 50-year-old writer was murdered by 24-year-old Charlotte Corday, who was either, depending on the propaganda you believe, a supporter of the monarchy or a supporter of the less radical Girondins, and blamed Marat for the escalating violence of the revolution. After making no attempt to escape after stabbing him, Corday was apprehended and executed by guillotine just four days later.
2. The Death of Marat was propaganda.
Not only the leading artist of his time, but also a zealous Jacobin and "official artist" of the radical revolutionary cause, David was asked by the revolutionary government to glorify three of its lost members for political gain. Essentially, David was charged with making Marat a publicly recognized martyr to the cause and an epic hero.
3. It's both an idealized and accurate portrait of Marat.
The propaganda angle informed David's creative choices, urging him to blend fact and fiction. Almost like a crime scene photo, David carefully captured the green rug, bathtub, papers and pen left behind by the late revolutionary. However, he opted to exclude Marat's physical imperfections.
The reason Marat was working in the bathtub to begin with was because he suffered from a skin condition, likely severe eczema. To soothe his skin, he habitually bathed in oatmeal. In depicting Marat’s final bath, David decided to portray his friend as a beautiful beacon, free of such superficial flaws.
4. David pulled from religious inspiration to make Marat appear like a martyr.
The positioning of Marat's right arm, long and limp, cascading down the canvas, has drawn comparisons to the death pose of Jesus in Caravaggio's The Entombment of Christ. David was a noted fan of the 16th century Italian painter and also mimicked his use of light.
5. David also drew from Greek and Roman sculpture.
Art historian E.H. Gombrich explained of the creation of The Death of Marat:
"He had learned from the study of Greek and Roman sculpture how to model the muscles and sinews of the body, and gave it the appearance of noble beauty; he had also learned from classical art to leave out all the details which were not essential to the main effect, and to aim at simplicity.”
6. The Death of Marat was revolutionary for several reasons.
The first is that it depicts a martyr of the French Revolution. The second is that it was painted in the midst of the French Revolution, mere months after Marat's demise. The last revolutionary element relates to how it marked a change from David's typical subject matter. He'd previously pulled his subjects from classical antiquity, but here his muse was a contemporary figure.
7. The Death of Marat is the only one of David’s propaganda paintings to survive.
The Death of Lepeletier was destroyed on July 27th, 1794 during the coup d'état known as the Thermidorian Reaction. The Death of Bara was never completed.
8. David decided to exclude Marat's killer almost completely.
While historian Alphonse de Lamartine would go on to describe Corday as "the Angel of Assassination," David was understandably less fond of Marat's murderer. He chose instead to focus on the man he admired, and only includes a mention of Corday in the writings surrounding Marat's corpse.
Similarly, he chose to remove the offending knife from his colleague's chest where Corday had left it. Instead, it sits, stained with blood, on the floor.
9. Corday's treachery is revealed in Marat's hand.
Corday gained access to Marat's private moment by entreating the writer to read a petition. As depicted by David, he was about to sign it as he was stabbed. The artist makes it clear that in his dying moments Marat's last thoughts were only of the revolution.
10. The Death of Marat was initially popular.
Presented by David to his peers in November 15, 1793, the painting was instantly so beloved by the Montagnards and their sympathizers that it was hung in the hall of their National Convention of Deputies. Reproductions were also made for further propaganda use. But as the tide turned against the Montagnards, so too did opinion of the painting. To protect it, David hid the work when he himself was exiled for his part in the Reign of Terror.
11. The Death of Marat got a second life after David's death.
Twenty-one years after David passed away in 1825, renewed interest came from French art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire's praises of the long-forgotten portrait.
“The drama is here, vivid in its pitiful horror. This painting is David’s masterpiece and one of the great curiosities of modern art because, by a strange feat, it has nothing trivial or vile … This work contains something both poignant and tender; a soul is flying in the cold air of this room, on these cold walls, around this cold funerary tub.”
12. The iconic French painting now calls Brussels home.
After having been banished for a second time after the fall of Napoleon, David fled with the painting and lived out the rest of his days in the Belgian capital. Sixty-one years later, David’s family decided to bequeath the painting to the city that accepted David. And the Royal Museum of Fine Arts has been proud to display The Death of Marat since 1886.
However, reproductions can be found in museums in Dijon, Reims, and Versailles.
13. It has inspired a couple of major tributes.
14. It's repeatedly referenced in pop culture.
In the movies, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Derek Jarman's Caravaggio mimic the painting’s composition in their mise-en-scene. Andrzej Wajda's Danton includes a scene of David's creation of The Death of Marat. The scene was brought to life in Abel Gance's 1927 film Napoleon. It was rendered in garbage in the landfill documentary Waste Land.
15. The Death of Marat has become more famous than Marat.
Because of David's moving—if manipulative—depiction of his fallen friend, The Death of Marat has struck a chord and spent the last two centuries becoming a highly recognized painting. Though some viewers might not know it by name, they recognize its influential iconography. But Marat the man is known primarily because of this very portrait.