Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat I (1907)

Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat I (1907) Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm. Currently on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary. Owned by the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.

A few weeks ago, on March 10th, I wrote on the work by Jacques-Louis David of the Death of Marat from 1793 (pictured below). That masterpiece of the French Revolution and Terror was copied in style and subject matter for years and continues to be. A fantastic example of the same subject matter but completely different style comes in Edvard Munch's Death of Marat I (1907), the first in a series of two works of the same subject by the artist.

Munch (12 December 1863 – 23 January 1944) is best known for his work The Scream (1893) that depicts an isolated figure on a walkway with a wide-gaping mouth and raised arms. This work is one of the most recognizable in art but it is not Munch's only important work or very indicative of his overall style. A Symbolist painter, he worked in macabre subject matters like the inevitability of death, the chilling stories of writers like Edgar Allen Poe, and other sinister aspects. It has often been called the "darker, Gothic side of Romanticism." The dark aspects of Munch's work are obvious in The Scream and in the Death of Marat I.

I explained the long story of Marat's death in the March 10th post but for new readers I will quickly explain the highlights. For a more detailed description and the political importance of the event and David's painting of it, please refer to the March 10th post.

The two figures in the work are the political and writer Jean-Paul Marat and the young woman Charlotte Corday who assassinated him. Marat, as any radical politician is likely to do, gained many enemies from the oppositional parties through his work and writings. On July 13th, while Marat was in his medicinal bath, Charlotte Corday, a member of the opposition party, came to his house to as a supplicant looking for help in exchange for what she said was important information about his enemies. Marat summoned her in. While giving him information about his enemies, her allies though he did not know it at the time, he proclaimed that they would all soon be dead. Upon hearing this, 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. Corday was quickly caught and guillotined four days later. Her last words were, "I killed one man to save 100,000."

Munch's interpretation is unlike David's in many ways, the least of which being a more stylized technique. Here the sympathy seems to be with Corday who is shown naked and vulnerable while Marat is not depicted as a sickly invalid in a bath but rather lain on a bed where it seems to be implied they had been. Why Corday is naked is an interesting question because it is completely outside the realm of possibility that she was naked in real life when she stabbed Marat. This work is more of an allegory. As with many works of art that depict Judith and Holofernes and have deeper meanings of women overcoming the tyranny of men, this seems to be a work more about the powerless exerting themselves than the actual account of the assassination. Corday's nakedness implies that Marat had debased her in some way. The sexual implication is a symbol of her oppression by this figure rather than an assertion that any sex act might have taken place. Marat was far too ill to attend political hearings sitting down and so it may be safe to say his skin would not have endured the irritation of human contact for long. The juxtaposition of this work with David's of the same subject shows the different ways diverse movements can comment on similar events or feelings in such a myriad of ways.

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat (1793) Oil on canvas, 64 in × 50 in. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

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