Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793)

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793). Oil on canvas, 64x50inches, currently in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Jacques-Louis David (30 August 1748 – 29 December 1825) was the preeminent painter of the French Revolution and the regimes that came after it. This painting has always been one of the great examples of his Neoclassical style and though what is probably his most famous painting, Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801) came after the Republic, his other well-known works, including the Death of Marat, are illustrations of the ideals of the new government. His stellar "Republican" works include, but are not limited to: the Oath of the Horatii (1784), The Death of Socrates (1787), and The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789). These works all rely on classical subject matter, in this case all stories from the Roman Republic, to convey the message of self-sacrifice and duty to your nation, country, or homeland that was necessary for "liberté, égalité, fraternité."

As one of the most famous images of the French Revolution the Death of Marat is evocative of the age in its Neoclassical style and idealization of its subject. The subject of the painting is Jean-Paul Marat (May 24, 1743 – July 13, 1793) who was a Swiss-born journalist and philosopher. Known as a radical supporter of the Revolution and the new Republic, Marat became an important politician when he wrote on the rights of the Third Estate. He also started his own publication, called "The Friend of the People," that was biased toward the Jacobin party. As an important figure within the government Marat was a close colleague of Robespierre and Georges Danton. He also became close with Jacques-Louis David who was, without the official title, the painter whose depictions of the Revolution were most favored by the new government. Marat's health rapidly deteriorated due to a skin condition that made him unable to wear clothes comfortably. For the roughly three years leading up to his death he did much of his work from home, in a medicinal bath that soothed the symptoms of his disease.

Marat, as any radical politician is likely to do, gained many enemies from the oppositional parties through his work and writings. The most serious opposition came from the Girondin party (royalist supporters) who, through much of Marat's own machinations, were finally brought down in 1792. A about a month later, on July 13th, while Marat was in his bath, a young woman named Charlotte Corday came to his house to as a supplicant looking for help in exchange for what she said was important information about the Girondins who had escaped after the fall. Marat summoned her in and she attended him while he was still in his bath. She gave him a list of the names and whereabouts of several Girondins. After he proclaimed that they would all soon be dead, Charlotte stabbed him once with a long knife she had concealed within her corset. The single wound killed him within seconds. Charlotte Corday was a Girondin supporter whose family was impoverished aristocracy and royalist supporters to the extent that both her brothers had fled with the princes a few months before. Corday was quickly caught and guillotined four days later. Her last words were, "I killed one man to save 100,000."

The painting depicts Marat in his death throes; Charlotte Corday has fled but left behind the knife, which lies near right hand on the floor, and the letter she gave him in introduction which he still holds in his left. Its words, "My great unhappiness gives me a right to your kindness" seeks to show Marat in sympathetic light as an powerful individual happy to assist a woman in need. This is further emphasized by the letter he was working on previous to their encounter. It sits on his makeshift desk and reads,"You will give this assignat to that mother of five children whose husband died in the defense of his country." The wound to his chest is clearly seen against his pale, almost translucent skin. David has painted Marat as a martyr to the Revolution, and though he was seen by many has a dangerous radical this visual representation was applauded and treasured by the Republic for years.