Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Marat”, 1793, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 50 Inches, Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium
Jacques-Louis David promised his peers in the National Convention that he would later depict Marat, their murdered friend, invocatively as ‘erivant pour le bonheur du peuple’ or writing for the good of the people. “The Death of Marat” is designed to commemorate a personable hero. Although the name of Chalottte Corday, the assassin, can be seen on the paper held in Marat’s left hand, she herself is not visible. Close inspection of this painting shows Marat at his last breath, when Corday and many others were still nearby.
In this sense, for realistic as it is in its details, the painting, as a whole, from its start, is a methodical construction focusing on the victim, a striking set up regarded today by several critics as an “awful beautiful lie”— certainly not a photograph in the forensic scientific sense and barely the simple image it may seem. For instance, in the painting, the knife is not to be seen where Corday had left it impaled in Marat’s chest, but on the ground, beside the bathtub.
“The Death of Marat” has often been compared to Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, particularly the elongated arm hanging down in both works. Jacques-Louis David admired the work of Caravaggio, especially his “Entombment of Christ” which mirrors David’s painting in drama and light. David sought to transfer the sacred qualities long associated with the monarchy and the Catholic Church to the new French Republic.
Jacques-Louis David painted Marat, martyr of the Revolution, in a style reminiscent of a Christian martyr, with the face and body bathed in a soft, glowing light. As Christian art had done from its beginning, David also played with multileveled references to classical art. Suggestions that Paris could compete with Rome as capital and mother city of the Arts and the idea of forming a kind of new Roman Empire appealed to French Revolutionaries, who often formed David’s audience.