s, representations of the past)French Revolution-Death of Marat
(painting analysis, representations of the past)
The Death of Marat , is an idealistic portrait
painted by Jacques-Louis David, depicting the assassination of one of the
leaders of the French Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was a prominent
member of a group of people called the Jacobins, and founder of a controversial
newspaper publication, LAmi du Peuple (“the Friend of the People).
Through the title of his paper, he became widely acknowledged as just that.
Marat used his “the Friend of the People” publication frequently to call
for popular violence against politicians. Marat was a part of a group of
people called the Sans Culottes. The Sans Culottes supported Marat, and
Marat had an influence over them. The main target of his calls were largely
a group of people called the Girondins. The Jacobins blamed the Girondins
for the defeats on the battlefield and the rising prices of food.
On the second of June the Sans-Culottes,
supporters of the Jacobins, forced their way into the Convention and expelled
the leading Girondins . Many of the expelled Girondins fled Paris,
in fear of facing the recently invented guillotine. Many fled to their
provinces. In doing so they triggered off revolts in the provinces which
supported the Girondins. By the summer of 1793, sixty out of eighty-three
departments had joined the rebellion against the government.
Faced with such immense problems, on April
the 6th, the Convention set up an emergency group called the Committee
of Public Safety. This was quite a contradiction of terms, as on September
the 17th “The Law of Suspects” came into effect. ” The Law of Suspects”
started a period referred to as the “Reign of Terror”. During this period
groups of citizens in every town were required to write up lists of people
suspected of opposing the government. Citizens of whatever sex, age, or
condition were ruthlessly executed purely for being suspected of opposing
the government; “public safety” was in fact at an all time low. Marat was
vocal in support of the executions, and this was what ultimately led to
his demise. On July 13th 1793 Charlotte Corday, a woman with Girondin sympathies
gained entry to Marats apartment and murdered him.
Subsequently Jacques-Louis David was “commissioned
by the convention ” to paint a portrait of Marat. The function of Davids
painting was to ensure that the momentum of the revolution kept moving
forward. If Marat was to be a symbol for maintaining the momentum
of the revolution then David needed to portray him in the most appealing
possible way, as “friend of the People”; a martyr. Obviously then, David
could not portray Marat as old and ill. Davids aim was to indeed construct
images of the secular saint . By depicting Marat in such a martyr
like fashion David ensured that Marats political ideologies would live
on. With Davids painting displaying such sympathies towards Marat he helped
the Sans Culottes strengthen support which in turn ensured Marat’s and
the Sans Cullotes ideals would therefore continue the momentum of the revolution
moving forward. The assassination of Marat sent shockwaves through Paris.
The fact that a “Girondin” had infiltrated Paris, and killed a leading
revolutionary figure in his own home scared many leaders (in particular
Robspierre) who now feared the same could easily happen to them. They needed
to ensure Marats death would raise sympathies with their parties and quash
any future counter-revolutionary assassinations.
David had previously shown an aptitude
for painting historical events. One of his most famous is that of “The
Oath the Horatii” . In this painting David depicts precisely what the French
Revolution came to represent. The painting depicts three brothers declaring
that they would fight to their death as champions of their city against
that of a rival city, for the common good of the people . The subject of
The Oath of the Horatii is dedication and sacrifice.
This same theme was present in Davids
portrayal of Marat. David shows a Marat who sacrificed his life for
the people of his country. In his hand Marat holds a letter. In the letter
Corday pleads for assistance. This is an historical inaccuracy by David,
showing the problems of representing the past, as this particular
letter was never actually shown to Marat. It was only to be used by Corday
to gain access to Marat if her first attempt to see him should fail . It
is the distortion and manipulation of the facts such these that artists
used to further a particular point of view or cause.
Lying beside Marat there also lies an
assignat upon a wooden crate; the assignat reads “You will give this assignat
to that mother of five children whose husband died defending the fatherland
“This document “near Marats hand are the unanswerable documents of his
saintliness . This document furthers Davids attempts to portray Marat
as a hero who was genuinely concerned with the plight of the people of
In Marat’s right hand is the pen with
which he had been writing, and draped over part of the bathtub is a cloth,
which serves as a desk. By attempting to paint Marat as a “friend of the
people”, and Corday as someone who falsely appealed to his generosity at
the very moment he was responding to a citizens needs , David clearly displays
bias. This however contrasts to other representations of the event, as
it was said at the trial of Corday that her decision to stab Marat depended
upon the response of Marat upon hearing of the opposition . Marats reaction
to hearing of the opposition was “Good, in a few days I will have them
all guillotined” The contrast is of him being shown as “friend of
the people” on one hand, yet on the other, he was a vengeful man who had
great power and could use it.
Further inaccuracies by David are evident.
The appalling skin disease is not apparent. Instead we are faced with an
image of a young healthy man. The old wooden crate, and the white sheet
which covers his head complete with a patch, they are all aimed at drawing
attention to the poverty and inglorious surroundings in which Marat lived.
Furthermore the paintings background is dull; the walls are undecorated
and scant of any colour. In reality the walls of Marats “were decorated
with elegant wallpaper and decorations to beautify the interior”
“David was asked by the Convention to
paint Marats portrait, so it could be said that The Death of Marat was
commissioned work” . Davids personal perspective is incorporated into
the painting. The fact that his painting drew large crowds suggests that
his interpretation would have had wide ranging influence ,gaining support
for the Jacobins and persuaded the way Parisians perceived Marat, despite
the paintings inaccuracies. His images showed the power of art to electrify
even the most common citizen. David could have indeed chosen to paint
a glorious portrait of Marat, instead we see Marat in a bathtub, surrounded
by poverty, inglorious and defenceless, again Davids bias is prevalent.
This shows the problems historians face when dealing with history as events
are often tainted by inaccuracies such as the assignat , and therefor representations
cannot be taken on face value alone.
Davids bias in painting this picture
stems from his friendship with Marat and a mixture of admiration, and trying
to depict Marat as a symbol of the revolution. Davids advantage in attempting
to do this was that his representation of Marat was easily absorbed and
widely viewed by the public, effortlessly influencing public opinion and
continuing the momentum of the revolution moving forward..
Marat is slumped in the bathtub, hand
outstretched, lying motionless, in a lifeless picture of tranquillity and
peace. Marats is portrayed in a similar pose to sculptor Michelangelos
masterpiece Pieta , which depicts Christ, arm outstretched as David depicted
Marat. The significance is the inference that Marat sacrificed himself
for the good of the people , just as Christ is said to have done.
Other religious elements are also prominent, the halo like turban around
Marats head, and the heavenly light shining upon Marats angelic face. It
was Marats aim to “construct images of a secular saint”
The portrayal of Marat in this way contrasts
with other accounts of Marat. Marat up until the moments before his death
was a violent man who totally supported the executions of all those who
opposed the government. Marat was once known to have said, “In order to
ensure public tranquillity 200,000 heads must be cut off”.
Joseph Roques also depicts Marat
in the Pieta like pose. It alerts us to how representations of the past
often substitute reality for a cause, in this case the revolution.
The Jacobins set forth to prosper from
Marats high status. Various changes made throughout France reflected this
and promoted the Jacobin parties cause. “Place names were altered so that
Montmartre became Mont-Marat; rue des Cordeliers, the rue Marat, and over
thirty communes throughout the Republic incorporated the martyr in their
new name” . Marat dead was perhaps more useful to the Jacobins than the
unpredictable, choleric live politician.
When analysing representations from the
past we must recognise motivating factors behind representations. In a
time when violence was so prevalent “actuality” was replaced by inaccurate
images resulting in historical misrepresentations. This was partly
due to the fear people experienced , partly due to sympathies people held.
David supported the Jacobins and so this representation was biased, giving
only the Jacobins perspective, not at all representing the views of Corday
or the Girondins who particularly hated Marat. All reflections in history
are biased documents. This is because the various problems experienced
throughout history such as differing political viewpoints and loyalties
affect the reliability and accuracy of historical representations. These
differences affect peoples reflections, and afterthoughts of an event or
experience , meaning what one person perceives and interprets in a certain
way can be totally different to another individuals point of view . Subsequently
we must question representations of the past , such as Davids “The Death
of Marat” and the validity of opposing views.