Matthew Wicks is my guest today. He is based out of based Suffolk, England, and said he’s been keen on the history of the French Revolution ever since reading about Saint-Just when he was 16 years old. He is interested primarily in political history whether it be the ideologies of the 20th century or the republican movement of the 18th century. He holds a diploma in journalism and told me the following:
“I decided to write on David’s The Death of Marat for a variety of reasons; these include an interest in the subject of the painting itself (the shoddy and agitated, yet enlightened, Jean-Paul Marat), the art reflecting a cultural shift in France at that point (ancien regime indulgences transforming into romanticism) and the fact that the revolution completely blew apart the preexisting world.’
Here is Matthew’s post:
‘He is a martyr of the republic from this point on. Paranoid pamphleteer turned French figure of unity.’
‘The body leans to one side. Very reminiscent of Christ as he is taken down from the cross’
‘His unblemished skin cynically identifies within the sanctifying power of this portrait. The agitator has been made a being of virtue’
If you find yourself have a feeling of déjà vu being goaded when reading these quotations then it’s quite possible that you’ve heard them when reading or listening to any evaluation made on Jacque Louis David’s infamous The Death of Marat. A seminal work noted for the controversy that entailed as much as the praise given for its use of colours and light. A piece used more often to assess the integrity of its creator as much as their skill as an artist.
For those unfamiliar with David and his piece ‘La Mort de Marat’ (The Death of Marat) David was an influential neoclassical artist with radical sympathies having spent his formative years creating epic paintings based on classical symbolism. During the French Revolution, an occasion he embraced with arms wide open, he managed to get himself elected as a deputy of the republican National Convention and was now voting for some of the revolutions most extreme measures, including the beheading of the deposed king despite having taken commissions as an artist from aristocrats in pre-revolutionary France. Louis XVI’s execution was an act of violent defiance that saw the revolution go from a mostly contained event between France and the Habsburgs transform into being a much larger conflict. Both Great Britain and Spain were now allying themselves with Prussia and Austria against the republic that dared threaten the old order of Europe.
The subject of his painting, Jean-Paul Marat, was perhaps the most vociferous orator speaking on behalf of the Parisian mob. Regarded as a demagogue by more moderate republicans he was a close associate of David as a fellow deputy of the republican parliament. His newspaper The Friend of the People often demanded more death sentences passed on those who did not seem enthusiastic publicly about the direction that the evermore intense revolution was going down. In the end he was stabbed whilst taking one of his medicinal baths that helped him cope with a skin disease. He had been assassinated by a supporter of a rival revolutionary faction.
David seized upon the chance to paint his downed friend and the result is a simple snapshot of the outspoken politician dead. Except only the shapes are simple; everything else is being undermined by very complex themes which have been explored and built upon in countless articles and essays on the painting. If you read enough evaluations of the painting you’ll probably come to one conclusion: They’re all very samey. Many throw up the same questions and conclusions. I admit that I find myself agreeing with most judgements. Everything has been said that can be said about it, there’s little more to explore with it. It’s pure propaganda working on behalf of Marat’s legacy. Everything from the corpse’s pose, to the falsified papers in his left hand and David dating the piece using the new republican calendar (devised and named by fellow Jacobin D’Eglantine) to even the airbrushed skin; all of this helps denote that the painting was never intended to be that true snapshot of the crime scene that some have mistaken it for. Never was it intended to be held up to the hungry Paris mob saying ‘Here you have Marat, here is the caring writer as he died. See his helplessness. See how he died bathing, vulnerable. How cowardly of Charlotte Corday’.
Airbrushing in the 1790s? Well try looking for those sores he contracted whilst hiding from the king’s troops in the Parisian sewers and how they have now all vanished; the only blemish to his fine unadulterated skin being the mark of the assassin’s blade. The only blemish on his skin having been put there by another, furthering a case that he was better than those surrounding him to the last: the final moment when it was only him, the traitor and her knife.
As some people know of him as the subject of the piece they can only know what the piece wants them to believe: that he was a tragic figure at the last and a hero to the voiceless impoverished; David has gone as far as reworking the paper Marat has been writing. Where in real life there was a list of traitors to be guillotined there is now a letter to the family of a dead French soldier promising money from his own purse. It’s undeniable; David was whitewashing his friend. It’s hard to bring forward a counterargument. But surely the debate that follows the piece as well as the clichés that reverberate around it helps to certify David’s posthumous portrait as a masterpiece. It’s a piece that academics and critics (uncomfortably) give credit to when recognising its mastery in being at once innovative in its use of space and drama, despite it being a hastily painted bit of manipulation finished whilst the subject’s flesh was turning in the summer heat of 1793.
In my own eyes, the standout feature presented in The Death of Marat is the meeting of the political and the divine; a blend that inspired a cult of martyrdom that held sway throughout the following bloody 12 months popularly remembered as the ‘Reign of Terror’. Marat’s wishes were met posthumously as the denounced (mostly innocent) fifth columnists suspected of working inside France on behalf of foreign armies and the dauphin were butchered by state apparatus. But with Marat replacing Christ, the bloodshed was not only legitimised but sanctified too; Marat had called for it and had gone as far as dying for the revolution. Who were the mob and the politicians to deny him and his memory? Marat had passed on into the eternal; the voided top half of the painting representing the sanctitude that surrounded him, with the speckled use of dull gold that enters from the top right coming down to illuminate his benevolent cadaver. You can imagine the cynics and the ideologues who commissioned the piece colluding: ‘This is Jacobin France; there is no need for the old faiths and the troubling rivalling loyalties that come with them. Or if the masses won’t shed credulity, then why not channel it onto the one man, a diehard, who held our beliefs more fervently than any other?’
With any of the major figures of the French Revolution assessments on the character of Jean Paul-Marat are just as varied as the ones passed on Robespierre. Maximilien Robespierre, de facto dictator during The Terror, a leader and man simultaneously seen as a demagogue as well as incorruptible. Marat is no different. Writing (within living memory of the event) in History of the French Revolution: Its Causes and Consequences (1844), the traditionalist British author Frederica Maclean Rowan described Jean-Paul as being ‘an object of horror’, his body being ‘the habituation of a soul as hideous’. In the 1920s (less than a century later) the Bolsheviks were going as far as renaming a Tsarist battleship in his honour.
The contradicting natures of both examples listed here help to explain why David’s legacy is equally scrutinised. If David proudly sat alongside Marat on the benches of the National Convention where they both supported radical measures and generally saw eye to eye on most issues then why did he feel the need to lie through his art? Was David just the cynical artist, a careerist hanging onto the coat tails of history; at once associating himself with the revolution whilst acting ignorant of the guillotine? A man who painted powerful stuff for whoever happened to hold influence at that moment in time? Of course we can not know for certain, but do remember this: David is that staunch republican, fearless friend of the revolution, who went on to be the personal portraitist for a certain Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
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