Welcome to Art History in a Hurry. I'm your host, Monica Hon.
On July 13, 1793, Jean-Paul Marat—a radical journalist and political leader of the French Revolution—was working in his makeshift office.
He had an unfortunate skin disease he'd contracted while hiding from the Royal Police in the Paris sewers before the revolution. This disease required constant soaking in the bathtub to alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms. He worked there with a board and sheets over the tub for a semblance of privacy, and a rough wooden packing box he used as a desk.
On this day, an enemy of the revolution—Charlotte Corday—gained entrance to his office with a false letter of introduction. She plunged the knife into his chest, and Marat bled to death.
Jacques-Louis David—a prominent artist and a friend of Marat—was called in immediately to draw the corpse while it's still in the tub. He later made this painting from his drawings.
David shows us the slain revolutionary bathed in light, already dead, but still holding Corday's letter. The bloody knife lies on the floor, but Marat still grasps his own powerful weapon in his right hand.
Despite the graphic depiction of the dead body, the bloody water, and the bloodstained sheets, the painting conveys a contrast in mood of calm with emphasis on horizontal lines and its cool, greenish pallor. More than half the painting is given over to the cold, dark space above the figure, giving the painting a further chilling and claustrophobic feeling.
At the same time, the painting has an iconic quality. The figure of Marat reminds the viewer of earlier depictions of the dead Christ such as Michelangelo's Pieta, which David would have known from his visit to Rome.
In fact, Marat's wooden box, a bloody towel, and the bathtub itself were venerated by those sympathetic with a revolutionary cause, as though they were holy relics.
David executed this painting with linear crisp brushwork that characterizes the late 18th and early 19th century Neoclassical style. Everywhere at the end of 18th century, the styles of ancient Rome were becoming popular. Several important books had recently been published on ancient art, and it was at this time that the Roman cities—Pompeii and Herculaneum—were being excavated. A Roman craze followed before long in art and in popular culture.
David was influenced by all these, as well as by the art and architecture he saw himself while he studied in Rome. But the style of ancient art was important to David not only for its current popularity. He painted in the style of Roman art also to emphasize his political affiliation with the French Revolution.
Through the sculptural quality of the figure and the linear approach in his work—a style similar to ancient Roman sculpture—David evoked the very political ideals of the Roman Republic that the revolutionaries advocated.
Thanks for joining me. This has been Art History in a Hurry. See you next time.