Jacques-Louis David’s shocking painting was no mystery story when it first went on public display three months after the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a radical populist and crusading journalist who was already the focus of an emotional mortuary cult in Paris. Whatever explanatory notes it may need today, the Death of Marat still stands on its own as a powerful image of strange, repellent beauty.
Cherchez la femme: missing from the picture is Marat’s murderer, Charlotte Corday, a tall, attractive, and articulate twenty-five-year-old who had traveled from Normandy to strike this daring political blow. A fervent supporter of the moderate Girondin Party, Corday blamed Marat for the carnage then consuming the French Revolution, as faction warred against faction. Modeling herself on the heroes of antiquity whom she studied in Plutarch, she had planned to assassinate Marat, like Julius Caesar, in a public forum – the floor of the National Convention,. But when illness made Marat stay home, Corday tracked him to his apartment and, after several tries, won a private audience.
Because of his “leprous” skin condition (probably arthritic psoriasis), Marat worked and wrote while bathing his emaciated body in sulfur salts, a vinegar-steeped Rag (to sooth the fiery itching) wrapping his head. This was how he had received his friend and ally David just the day before. After conversing with Marat about the Girondins, whom she pretended to denounce and he promised to guillotine, Corday stabbed him once in the chest with a butcher knife she had purchased in a Paris shop. The six-inch blade pierced his lung and heart, and he was dead within minutes.
The picture shows none of the tumult that erupted after Marat’s cry for help. Here time has stopped: the gently smiling bather seems asleep and pleasantly dreaming. But in the first angry rush, Corday was knocked to the floor and soon arrested. She spent four days in prison before her trial, where she never wavered in her defense of the righteousness of the murder. She was convicted the same day and immediately sent to the Guillotine. It was said that when the executioner held up her severed head and slapped it on the cheek, the other check blushed. Madame Tussauds made on-site wax death masks of both Marat and Corday.
David, who was a militant Jacobin deputy at the National Convention, organized a lavish mass spectacle of Marat’s funeral procession and service. Because of the scorching midsummer heat, heavy perfumed were used to mask the corpse’s decay. A portrait of Marat was commissioned from David to adorn the Convention’s great hall, one of a pair of icons of martyrs of the Revolution framing the lectern. Coincidentally, on the day The Death of Marat was first shown to the public in the courtyard of the Louvre, Marie Antoinette was guillotined. David sketched the haggard queen as she rode by in the cart with her hands bound behind her back. The following year, when David and other partisans of the regicidal Maximilien Robespierre were arrested, the two martyr paintings were removed.
After his release from prison, David reacquired The Death of Marat but never showed it again. Indeed, within a few years, he made a sharp career turn and became a supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he commemorated in a glamorous series of heroic portraits. Though he disliked Napoleon’s metamorphosis from idealistic First Consul to megalomaniacal emperor, David’s chameleon-like shift opened him, then and now, to the charge of political opportunism. The Marat painting was hidden away until it was briefly seen among the contents of David’s studio, auctioned after his death in 1825. Exhibited two decades later, the picture cause a sensation and was hailed by the poet Charles Baudelaire as David’s “masterpiece.”
David’s breakthrough painting, Oath of the Horatii (1784), had triggered one of the most momentous shifts in style in the history of art: three athletic Roman brothers, blessed by their father, fling out their arms in a militant salute as they vow to sacrifice their lives for the nation. The picture, painted in Rome, symbolized dawning neoclassicism and electrified everyone who saw it. Rococo suddenly seemed empty and frivolous compared with this vigor of assertion, rendered with austere colors and hard sculptural contours. With this one work, David revived history painting and contributed to an urgent sense of purpose that would sweep France toward revolution.
Neoclassicism (new classicism) was inspired by the recent excavations of the Herulaneum and Pompeii, ancient Roman resort towns buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. There was a sudden craze for antiquity that influenced everything from fashion to interior décor. The Death of Marat has a sharp, clear neoclassical design. The grisly narrative has been reduced to simple shapes and blocks of color, anticipating modern abstract art. The plain background, like the marble wall of a Roman temple, is daringly diffuse, as if dissolving in the raking light. (It reproduces not Marat’s bleak apartment but David’s Louvre studio with its high windows.” The colors are subdued, except for drips and smudges of blood. The picture is a parable of frugality and civic devotion: L’Ami du people (Friend of the People) was the newspaper published by Marat on a printing press in his apartment. The white sheet ,lining the tub (to cushion his sores) is old and patched, while the nicked wooden crate, converted to a humble side table for ink pot and quills, is rudely studded with nails. David streaked brown paint over white primer to achieve the box’s rough yet beautifully glowing surface.
David has reworked the scene. Marat is more muscular here than in real life, and his raw blisters and scales have been erased. Distracting objects shelved on the wall are gone, and the ebony knife handle and boot shape of the tub have been altered. (Both the tub and knife survive in a Paris museum.) Marat was not nude but wore a dressing gown over his shoulders. Nor did he die holding Corday’s letter, whose language David has revised to highlight her treachery and sophisticated cadences, at odds with the brusqueness of the urban working class (sansculottes) whom Marat championed. Seemingly poking from the canvas is a note Marat has just written, donating money to a widowed mother of five. The competing letters pit one type of woman against another: the eloquent elite of the ancient regime versus the voiceless poor for whom Marat speaks. At first glance, the sight of the naked man slain in his private quarters might pique suspicions about romance and revenge. Indeed, the erotic subtext was luridly dramatized by Edvard Munch in two 1907 versions of this painting, where the nude Corday has become a warrior-like femme fatale and the tub a bloody bed cradling a castrated Marat.
David’s beatific treatment of Marat’s body recalls Italian paintings of the dead Christ being laid in his tomb. But the heaviness of composition, with everything falling to the bottom, conveys the finality of mortality. The wood box is like a tombstone with its maker’s signature and dedication (“To Marat,” carved in Roman letters), also subtly sinking. The date in tiny letters (“ Year Two”) uses the short-lived Republican calendar, not yet in effect at Marat’s death. David’s original; title was Marat at his last breath, capturing the fleeting moment between life and death. The quill still loosely grasped in Marat’s right hand suggests his words taking wing and living beyond him. Like the dove of the Holy Spirit, revolutionary ideas will illumine and inspire. Marat would one day become a hero of international Communism. But it is an open question whether this ruthless activist, author of so many massacres, was a saint or a monster.
Glittering Images; A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia; Pantheon Books, N.Y. 2012