This painting is from 1787, just two years before the final outbreak of the French Revolution that would change politics in the Western world forever.
"The Death of Socrates" is a painting by the French artist Jean-François-Pierre Peyron that depicts the scene of the philosopher Socrates' execution by poison. The painting shows Socrates surrounded by his anguished followers, as he calmly prepares to drink the poison that will end his life.
It is easy to see in these works that the author thought seriously about his mission as an artist, that he had important message to spread.
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
David was well-known as the painter of the French Revolution. He trained a large number of artists who arrived in his studio from different areas of Europe, and through them he made Neoclassicism the dominant artistic style in the continent for several decades.
He also played a leading political and artistic role during and after the French Revolution.
He was a member of the Jacobins, the most radical group in the Revolution, and was close to Robespierre and Marat. His painting of the death of Marat is probably the most famous image of the Revolution.
During his youth, David spent five years in Italy, carefully studying the art of the past. Shortly after his return to Paris in 1780, he became the leading painter. "The Death of Socrates" was exhibited publicly after it was finished, and it became immensely successful.
What is the painting about?
According to the story, Socrates was sentenced to death by the Athenian government for corrupting the youth of Athens and not believing in the gods of the state. Rather than fleeing or trying to escape, Socrates willingly accepted his sentence and used the opportunity to engage in philosophical discussions with his friends and students.
Socrates is shown seated on a bed, with his friends and students gathered around him. The philosopher Plato is shown standing at the foot of the bed, while the young student Crito is shown seated at Socrates' side, weeping. He became a symbol of honesty and self-sacrifice that was referred too often throughout the centuries. Here Socrates, his facial features inspired by ancient statues known to David, is about to pick up the cup of poison, while he preaches to his followers. He is ready to die courageously and in full control. He told his students "You go on to live, and I to die, which is better, the gods only know". Socrates is shown with a calm and serene expression, as he prepares to drink the poison that was brought to him in a cup.
The painting is notable for its depiction of the philosopher's calm acceptance of death, and for its depiction of the deep bond between Socrates and his students.
The composition of the painting
The composition is structured around the central axis of the bed, which divides the painting into two halves. On the left side of the bed, we see Plato and some of the other students looking on with concern, while on the right side of the bed, we see Crito seated next to Socrates, with his head bowed in grief.
The composition is further enhanced by the use of diagonal lines, which create a sense of movement and tension within the scene. The bed is angled diagonally across the canvas, and the figures are arranged in a way that creates a sense of dynamic tension.
Overall, the composition of "The Death of Socrates" is structured in a way that creates a sense of intimacy and emotional connection between the figures, and that uses diagonal lines and other compositional elements to create a sense of movement and tension within the scene.
What I have learned from this painting
I did not particularly attracted by this painting initially. The high clarity of the scene, the fierce gesture of the man in the middle and the soft drapping garments have made up a pretty gorgeous art piece, I wouldn't have related this painting to anything near death. But after learning the story behind, I admire Socrates for his spirit to sacrifice himself.
We know that philosophers are critical thinkers and seekers of truth. Socrates is held in high regard by many people because he is also a moral leader, he was known for his commitment to living a virtuous life and for his belief that it was important to do what was right, regardless of the personal cost.
He was a brave and courageous individual, even in the face of persecution and death. To him, death is a natural part of life, and we should not fear it. I respect the moral value of this painting, even more is his determination and at peace with his decision to sacrifice in a dignified manner.