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“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques Louise David

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates is one of the most telling paintings that speak volumes of the ignorance to the truth as portrayed by the System of rule in Ancient Greece.

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The Death of Socrates is neo classical style of painting that was done by Jacques Louise David in the late 1787(Crow 123). It depicts the final moment that the great philosopher, Socrates, underwent through after being sentenced to death for the allegations of corrupting the youth of Athens and disrespecting the Gods which at the time was a very great crime in Early Athens. The piece is meant to enlighten the people on the last moments that the great philosopher experienced in his last moments on his death bed. The piece has been lauded as a perfect blend of speech and silence intertwined together to form a dramatic balance that encapsulates a political statement and martyrdom on the part of Socrates (Crow 223).

He was condemned to drink the lethal brew of “hemlock” that was composed of a strong herbal sedative mixture, and which was employed by the Ancient Greeks to administer a peaceful death. Even during his death, Socrates continued to teach his students, most notably and his most famous student Plato (Dowd 96). A person looking at the painting will quickly embrace the emotional intensity of the moment, as evidenced by Plato, who slumps his head at the bottom of the bed in a sorrowful gesture of accepting the hard reality of the impending death. In the background, of the painting it is seen that the Socrates family is being escorted out of the chambers, and this seems to be done so as to avoid them the anguish of seeing life seep out of their beloved father and husband (Lajer-Burcharth 148). This might have been done to save the family from excess emotional trauma, which can be expected from close family associates undergoing such kind of pressure.

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The painting clearly portrays the staunch and unrelenting and uncompromising nature of Socrates. This is evidently captured in the strong poise captured by the painting of him pointing up, maybe referring to a higher authority than the Greek empire and above all humanity and morality (Dowd 176). The painting captures the moment very clearly and portrays the strong and determined personality of the great philosopher. His seated and relaxed pose, even on his death bed and with the full knowledge of the impending death, shows that, the Socrates chose his own death in his terms rather than bow down to what he did not consider to be true. Rather than denounce his beliefs he instead, chose death as opposed to betraying his beliefs and therefore live as part of a corrupt world and therefore a meaningless society.

The painting begs the viewer to notice the sacrifice depicted by Socrates, even in the face of beckoning death, and shows the viewer that even in the face of death, one can have dignity. Through history, it is told that he was given a choice of renouncing his teachings and live or go along with them and die (Crow 338). He chose the latter, which shows a great belief in self. The shackles that are shown strewn on the ground are a clear indication that the protagonist in the painting was psychologically prepared for death, and that he was not trying to resist death in any way. Therefore, they would have had no reason to shackle him up, yet he was not resisting or trying to escape or cause chaos. This scene points out to the political intentions that the painting was meant to portray or to capture. The painting was done during a time when there was political division and persecution, and as the revolution was slowly taking shape and dawning on France. The shackle presents the true sense of freedom enjoyed by Socrates even during the last minutes of his life. Coupled with the presence of the den, the shackles portray the iron rule and oppression that the regime of the time, just like so many other regimes inflicted upon its people, especially for those who tried to see things from a different perspective other than the one supported by the regime (Crow 298).

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Born in France on 30th August 1748, Jacques Louise David was a renowned French painter confining his major works to a neo classical style, a form that has been measured to be the most excellent painter of that particular epoch (Dowd 99). His paintings encapsulated deep political messages with the protagonist in the paintings being immortalized on canvas, such as the death of Socrates. His early schooling, where he sharpened skills, was at the French Academy of art in Rome, where he was allowed to go an extra year after his shrewdness had been discovered (Dowd 50). Even though, he was not favored by the academy, his prowess did not go unnoticed. He sent his first painting to the salon in 1871, and this earned him the recognition of the king who granted him permission to work in the Louvre, a privilege that was highly sought by many painters. This is the point that marked the onset of great works by Jacques David. He died in December 29th 1825 (Dowd 106).

The most famous works include his famous Oath of Horatii, which was done in 1784 and it is a projection of Rousseau’s Social contract that portrays the ideals of the enlightenment. Like The Death of Socrates painting, this painting has a long story to tell especially the disparity in the gender roles that existed during the time. This is clearly depicted by the almost seclusion of women in the oath taking ceremony as depicted by the back of the father and the protagonist in the story being against the women (Lajer-Burcharth 98). Other famous paintings include The Distribution of the Eagle Standards that portrays a revolutionary theme while The Oath of the Tennis Court emphasizes on the importance of manly surrender, for the sake of one’s country and patriotism. His works are shadowed by a political message that is well hidden in the painting (Dowd 226).

The painter uses the power of light to accentuate his message in his painting. Through the use of light, the protagonist in the painting is given an almost larger than life aura, which in essence he is believed to have been. Using contrast in light, David has painted Socrates portraying him as an athletic man of impeccable physique despite him being over 70 years at the time of his death. His paintings are done on a smooth surface thereby appearing to be very smooth, and also due to the mono direction of the painting strokes that he employs in his works (Lajer-Burcharth 228).

The Death of Socrates has immortalized the teachings of the great philosopher Socrates as frozen in eternity in the outstanding painting by Jacques Louise David. It speaks volumes on the situation as it was during the early rise of the French revolution. It is a must-see painting for any self- respecting art enthusiast.


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