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The Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David

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Survey of Art: 19th Century

12/FA-HA-215-14

HyunJi Kim

The Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David

The Death of Socrates is 2-dimensional oil on canvas painting by an influential neoclassical style French painter Jacques-Louis David from 1787. This painting represents the scene of Socrates. Socrates was the most colorful and prominent Greek philosopher and logician who represented a shift in emphasis within Greek philosophy away from cosmological matters toward political, legal and ethical matters. His teaching arose skepticism and in 399 BC, Socrates was charged for corrupting the mind youth of Athena and for the expression of his ideas against those of Athens'. The leaders of Athena condemned Socrates guilty and sentenced him to either exile and renounce his belif or death and even though Socrates could have fled from prison, with his devotion and obligation to obey the law, he accepted death from poison 'hemlock' while surrounded by his friends and pupils.

In the painting, David paints ten figures in foreground: the old men sitting on far left corner greiving is Socrates' prized student Plato, which can be identified by symbols of him which are scroll and pen on the ground. Next to the Plato is the executioner in red-robe giving the goblet of hemlock to Socrates. Socrates is sitting on the bed reaching for the goblet and continues to speak while pointing his index finger upward higher than other figures. David depicts Socrates to be sitting straight, which makes Socrates to appear as father figure among his friends and students. David idealizes the figure of Socrates to appear rather juvenile and energetic while symbolizing Socrates' wisdom through grey beard. Socrates' indifference to his death shows that he is ready to devote his life to his beliefs. The figure in orange-robe clutching Socrates' knee and looking towards Socrates is Crito. The three figures in back are Xanthippe, Socrates' wife in grief. David used a direct stage like light, which comes from the top left illuminating the figure of Socrates brighter and appear more prominent than other figures. The painting is completed in a high level of finish, without trace of brushstroke.

This painting can be indentified as neo-classical work because, first, this painting depicts a serious historical event; the painting is an unrealistic stage-set and stage-lit depiction of an historical event based on documentation such as Plato's Phaedo. Second this painting has a moral undertone and tells a story to educate the viewers. This painting was painted two years prior to the French Revolution: a period when the mood was heating up and David wanted to evoke French people to have strong sense of duty and self-sacrifice through Socrates' serenity and pride

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