Jacque Louis David’s Death of Socrates is probably my favorite piece in the Princeton University Art Museum. Even before you know anything about the work, there is something immediately striking about it– the fierce expression of the man in the middle, his finger pointed upwards to the heavens is in stark contrast with the grief-stricken expressions of the men behind him.
Death of Socrates tells the story of Socrates, a famous Athenian philosopher, who was charged by his government with the corruption of youth through his teachings. He was given the option to either renounce his teachings and move away in exile, or drink hemlock and die. It is evident from the painting which of the two options he chose. Although the work depicts a dark moment, the actual painting itself does not convey any of that darkness. While the disciples around him are bent with grief, Socrates himself still has his head held up high. Even while holding his glass of hemlock, it is said that he continued lecturing his students until the very end of his life.
The painting in the art museum is a teaching tool, and would have hung in the studio of David for his students to learn from. The work is actually unfinished, and this is evident through the stark contrast between the left and right side of the painting. The left side is darker, the brushstrokes smaller and closer together in a classic Neoclassical style. The right side is rougher, with each stroke not quite filled in as much.
Socrates is said to have spoken about the immortality of the soul, and about the importance of passion for one’s values and ideals, even at the risk of death. This painting becomes even more poignant when put into context of its time period. David, a French painter, created this work two years before the French Revolution in 1787, when tensions were beginning to rise among the people. The message behind this work is all the more tragic when considering the fact that the noble ideals expressed within the painting would become so corrupted only two years later.