The Death of Socrates: How To Read A Painting

The Death of Socrates: How To Read A Painting


this is the death of Socrates by jacques-louis daveed completed in 1787 it is an exemplar of the neoclassical period in France which de’vide virtually created and brought to the fore himself before I say more it’s important to note just how striking this canvas is not knowing anything about it so much jumps out at me right away the clarity of the scene the fierce gesture of the man in the middle the interplay of the chalice and the hand that reaches for it the angles of the light and the men the soft draping garments the bare flat stone wall as the title suggests the scene depicts the death of Socrates told famously by Plato in his dialogue on the soul the Phaedo Socrates had been convicted in Athenian court of failing to acknowledge the gods of the city and corrupting the city’s youth and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock as Plato makes clear in another dialogue the Crito Socrates could have escaped into exile but instead he chooses to die taking the opportunity to teach his final lesson that death is not to be feared by the philosopher but embraced as an apotheosis of the soul Davi chooses to paint the moment just as Socrates is grabbing for the poisoned draught he’s been discussing at length the immortality of the soul and doesn’t even seem to care that he’s about to take the implement of his death in hand on the contrary Socrates is defiant gesturing toward the afterlife to which he hastens devide idealizes him Socrates would have been 70 at the time and somewhat less muscular and beautiful than painted here the raking light coming in from the top-left pours onto Socrates the brightest figure in the tableau the colors muted at the sides become vivid in the center with the executioner in red and Socrates and white for devide Socrates is a symbol of strength over passion of stoic commitment to an abstract principle even in the face of death this is the ethical message daveed sought to offer the French two years for the French Revolution as the monarchy was in decline and reformers ache to install a democracy akin to that of Socrates own time in Greek antiquity or of the United States which had just executed its own revolution five years prior indeed Thomas Jefferson himself was present at the unveiling of this painting at the salon of 1787 the image commissioned by two radical political reformers was wildly popular daveed had already made his name with another severe moralistic canvass the oath of the Horatio which effectively invented the neoclassical style taking its cues from the stark simplicity of ancient Greece and Rome from the ancient obsession with anatomy and musculature from the two-dimensional freezes depicting historical events neoclassicism as rendered by devii made its points strongly and severely this was in direct opposition to the dominant Rococo style that reflected the ornate and hedonistic lifestyles of the monarchy in the hooray she I as in the death of Socrates those dedicated to principle are depicted with angular geometry while those ruled by passion are curved and weak in both canvases the backgrounds are flat fixing attention on the foreground we’re like a freeze the action can be read from side to side one way to read the death of Socrates is right to left the anguish of Socrates followers curling and twisting opens up unto the calm expression of the man himself and flows down through his right arm which hovers over the cup of poison the space between the hand and the cup the exact centre of the image is the seat of maximum narrative charge then it falls back into the pain of the man who delivers the poison who turns his gaze away from Socrates and finally comes to rest on the man sitting at the foot of the bed unengaged we’re on him in a moment Dawid doesn’t identify anyone in the painting but we can infer from accounts of Socrates actual death that in the background is Socrates wife is antha P led away in distress and clutching Socrates leg is cryto his oldest and most faithful student under credo we can see that daveed has signed his own name signaling a feeling of connection with the man daveed weaker than his ideal of moral strength nonetheless grabs and strives toward the painter has taken a number of liberties with history besides altering Socrates face and physique the vidi creases the number of people present at the event from over 15 to 12 echoing the number of disciples at da Vinci’s Last Supper but I think the most significant change is the addition of the character at the foot of the bed this is Plato the man who popularized Socrates teachings by staging him as the protagonists in over 30 philosophical dialogues but simply without Plato there would be no Socrates the two men melt into each other historically it’s hard to determine where Socrates philosophy ends and Plato’s begins not only was Plato absent at the death of Socrates but he was a young man at the time here de’vide has him as old and withdrawn I said earlier that you can read the canvas from right to left but you can also read it from left to right the whole scene it seems to me appears to explode out of the back of Plato’s head recontextualizing it as a memory and idealize memory in which Socrates gestures in the exact same way he does in Raphael’s School of Athens significantly Plato is positioned apart from the flat background where the frozen lateral moment gives way to the depth of time and reality it strikes me that this is the way memories often fall out restaged with smooth edges and perfect light two-dimensional idealize painstakingly arranged to serve the needs of the present in the character of Plato the rigorous ethical reality of the scene is betrayed by its own self-awareness as a construction and in only a few short years the noble ideals of the French Revolution will be betrayed as well by the terror that is to follow maybe this is why almost prophetically daveed signs his name here a second time neoclassicism like this may seem severe and blunt but so much is happening in dahveed’s death of Socrates an interplay of historical personal political and aesthetic elements rendered forcefully subtly and beautifully put another way it’s a work of genius hey everybody if you want to help me keep making these videos and support the nerdwriter you can visit my patreon page by clicking here you can pledge as little as one dollar everything helps thank you so much here’s some more videos

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