15 Things You Should Know About Jacques-Louis David's 'Death of Socrates'

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Long before he was regarded as a pioneer of the Neoclassical style, 18th-century French painter Jacques-Louis David was fascinated by history, enamored by ancient art, and determined to use his works to change the world. With The Death of Socrates, he brought politics into painting, shook up the art scene, and won major admirers ahead of the French Revolution.

1. THE DEATH OF SOCRATES DEPICTED A REAL AND TRULY HORRIFIC EVENT.

In 399 BCE, the Athenian courts convicted the philosopher Socrates of impiety, declaring he was corrupting the youth and had failed to worship the city's gods. He was sentenced to execution by hemlock poisoning. His protégé Plato recounted in the Phaedo that Socrates did not run from nor cry over his impending demise. Instead, he treated his execution as his final lesson. Taking the poison before his students, he did so while lecturing about how he believed in the immortality of the soul, and so did not fear death. Nonetheless, his friends and students wept around him.

2. IT'S AN IDEALIZED PORTRAIT OF SOCRATES.

At the time of his execution, Socrates would have been about 70 years old, and was unlikely to have looked quite so fit. But a beefier body wasn't his only upgrade. Comparing The Death of Socrates to busts of the famed philosopher, it's clear David gave him a makeover with a softer profile and less bulbous nose.

3. PLATO MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Socrates sits just off center of the painting, reaching for the cup of poison, while giving a pointed speech. At the foot of the bed, turned away from him, is an old man with a beard and white robes. This is David's depiction of Plato, who wasn't actually present at the scene. Notably, he chose to make the Phaedo author look much older than he would have been at the time. Plato was roughly 29 when Socrates died.

4. DAVID BROKE FROM THE FACTS TO MAKE HIS MASTERPIECE.

David studied the Phaedo and conversed with scholar Father Jean Félicissme Adry, among others. But David did not feel beholden to his research. He made Plato older, Socrates fitter. He excluded some attendees from the scene, yet included both Plato and Apollodorus of Phaleron, a student of Socrates who the philosopher had kicked out for his intense display of grief. Apollodorus is the curly-haired blond who has thrown himself against the pillar inside the arch.

5. SOCRATES'S WIFE XANTHIPPE IS THERE TOO.

Look past all the weeping students, past the sullen Plato, into the hallway, where a woman in dusty pink robes waves her hand. That's Socrates's wife, seemingly regarded as an afterthought.

6. DAVID SIGNED THIS PIECE TWICE, AND WITH PURPOSE.

"L. David" can be spotted on the gray bench on which a man in a coral robe sits. That is Crito, an agriculturist and companion of Socrates depicted in Plato's works. It's believed this signature placement means David related most to Crito. The writer Victor Moeller has suggested this means the painter saw himself as someone who "clutches at the morals and values that Socrates represents," which is suggested by how Crito clutches at the philosopher's thigh.

The other signature is just his initials, L.D. They can be found on the bench where Plato sits. Art historians believe this is a sort of citation to the source material, nodding to Plato's contribution to this painting via his Phaedo.

7. IT WASN'T JUST HISTORY. IT WAS PROPAGANDA.

A few years ahead of the French Revolution, The Death of Socrates was commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, two radical political reformers who were calling for an upheaval of French norms by promoting a free market system. To them, Socrates was a hero who sacrificed himself to his principles rather than accepting banishment and shame. In this painting of stoicism in the face of death, David was creating a clarion call for how the rebels should push toward their goals, not with cowardice and outcry like Socrates's students—save for Plato and Crito!—but with self-control, honor, and fearlessness.

8. IT MIGHT BE INTENDED TO BE READ RIGHT TO LEFT.

In his video essay "The Death of Socrates: How To Read A Painting," writer Evan Puschak argues that the painting is meant to be read like an ancient Roman frieze. If perceived through this lens, first the viewer would take in the wailing students, and perhaps wonder why they cry. Then they'd regard Socrates, lecturing and strong. Then, in the direct center of the painting, the cup of poison, hanging heavy with threat and finality. Next is the red-robed student so rattled he can't even look at his teacher in this final moment. Lastly, we'd regard the old man on the bench, Plato, left behind to tell the story that survived his friend and mentor.

9. READING IT LEFT TO RIGHT OFFERS A DIFFERENT BUT STILL PLAUSIBLE INTERPRETATION.

Puschak notes that Socrates became famous because of Plato's writings about him and his philosophies. With this in mind, you could regard The Death of Socrates left to right and see it as essentially being about Plato. In this context, the philosopher is thinking back on that fatal day. Behind him the death of Socrates plays out as memory—vibrant, beautiful, and bittersweet.

10. THE MUTED COLOR PALETTE MIGHT BE DUE TO DAVID'S CRITICS.

In 1784, David debuted Oath of Horatii, which depicted a Roman legend with vibrant colors of crimson and blue. This palette was panned by critics, who called it "garish." As such, art historians suspect that David chose to subdue his reds in this piece. Notably, the colors grow more vibrant toward the center of the painting, thus drawing our eyes to Socrates and the young man holding the cup of poison.

11. THIS WAS ONE OF SEVERAL POLITICALLY MOTIVATED DEATH PORTRAITS DAVID PAINTED.

Outraged by the French monarchy, David became a passionate member of the Jacobin Club, a radical democratic group born during the French Revolution. He used his skills as a painter to benefit their cause whenever possible. As the years went by, David grew bolder, moving away from ancient history as allegory and painting more recent events to engage his audience. In 1793 and 1794, he memorialized French Revolutionaries with The Death of Marat, The Last Moments of Michel Lepeletier, and The Death of Young Bara.

12. THE DEATH OF SOCRATES FLEW IN THE FACE OF WHAT WAS POPULAR IN PAINTING.

At this time, Rococo was all the rage. This late 18th-century French artistic movement embraced light colors, ornate compositions, curves, whimsy, and luxurious gold tones. In David's painting, the focal point is a man made of angular geometry; those whose spines curve around him are perceived as weak. The colors are more vibrant, the composition detailed but not florid, the subject life and death, not whimsy.

13. YET THE DEATH OF SOCRATES WAS GREATLY PRAISED IN ITS TIME.

The painting debuted at a Paris salon on August 25, 1787. It's unknown how long its exhibition lasted, but what is known is that Thomas Jefferson was one of its earliest admirers. According to art historian Narim Bender, influential English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds compared it to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Stanze rooms. After visiting the salon nine more times to view it, he declared The Death of Socrates "in every sense perfect."

14. THAT VERY SALON WAS DEPICTED IN A FAMOUS ENGRAVING.

Italian artist Pietro Antonio Martini expressed his admiration over this epic exhibition by creating the breathlessly detailed depiction Exposition au Salon du Louvre en 1787. The piece captures numerous visitors, walls full of paintings, and The Death of Socrates. You can find it near the center of the painting, in the bottom row. Just below the large portrait of a woman in a gown, it stands out with its gaping archway hovering above a trio of chatting guests.

15. TODAY THE DEATH OF SOCRATES IS REGARDED AS A DEFINING PIECE IN THE NEOCLASSICAL STYLE.

Though Oath of Horatii was criticized for its color, it's now viewed as the start of the Neoclassical style. But it was the critical reception and popularity of The Death of Socrates that both cemented the style and brought it to the attention of the world. Neoclassicism found inspiration in ancient Greek and Roman art's focus on anatomy and musculature, the stark simplicity of their statues, and the two-dimensional friezes that captured historical events. Essentially, David took these inspirations and gave them new life in relevance with oil paints.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which proudly houses The Death of Socrates today, declares it as "arguably the artist’s most perfect statement of the Neoclassical style."

This Wall Chart Shows Almost 130 Species of Shark—All Drawn to Scale

Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

Shark Week may be over, but who says you can’t celebrate sharp-toothed predators year-round? Pop Chart Lab has released a new wall print featuring nearly 130 species of selachimorpha, a taxonomic superorder of fish that includes all sharks.

The shark chart
Pop Chart Lab

Called “The Spectacular Survey of Sharks,” the chart lists each shark by its family classification, order, and superorder. An evolutionary timeline is also included in the top corner to provide some context for how many millions of years old some of these creatures are. The sharks are drawn to scale, from the large but friendly whale shark down to the little ninja lanternsharka species that lives in the deep ocean, glows in the dark, and wasn’t discovered until 2015.

You’ll find the popular great white, of course, as well as rare and elusive species like the megamouth, which has been spotted fewer than 100 times. This is just a sampling, though. According to World Atlas, there are more than 440 known species of shark—plus some that probably haven't been discovered yet.

The wall chart, priced at $29 for an 18” x 24” print, can be pre-ordered on Pop Chart Lab’s website. Shipping begins on August 27.

8 Things You Might Not Know About the Louvre

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

It might be the most iconic art museum in the world. Located in Paris, the Louvre (officially the Musée du Louvre) has admitted thousands of cultural artifacts and millions of admirers since opening its doors on this day in 1793. A guided tour is always best, but if you can’t make it to the Right Bank of the Seine, check out these eight facts about the 225-year-old landmark’s past, present, and future.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A CASTLE FORTRESS.

Before French King Philip II left for the Crusades in 1190, he ordered the fortification of the Seine area along the western border of Paris against any antagonists. Crowning the structure was a castle that featured a moat and defensive towers; it also housed a prison for undesirables. Over time, other construction urbanized the area, reducing the need for a combat-ready tower. In the 1500s, King Francis I built his residence on the same site. An art lover, Francis’s home and its collection of pieces hinted at what the Louvre would eventually become. In 1793, part of the Louvre became a public museum.

2. IT BECAME AN ARTIST RETREAT.

Before art was on open display for public consumption, the Louvre invited artists to stay and work on site and treat the building like a creative retreat. In 1608, Henri IV began offering artists both studio and living space in the Louvre. They could sculpt, paint, and generally do as they wished—but by the 18th century, the surplus of distinguished squatters had left the property a bit of a mess, and their residency was eventually phased out.

3. NAPOLEON RENAMED IT AFTER HIMSELF.

Crowned emperor in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t above a little self-glorification. Having spearheaded the transformation of the Louvre from a cultural hub to his own tributary, he had the name changed to the Musée Napoléon and hung the Mona Lisa in his bedroom. The banner lasted until his defeat in 1815.

4. AN ARTIST MADE ITS FAMED PYRAMID VANISH.

In a move right out of David Copperfield’s playbook, in 2016 French artist JR was able to execute an impressive optical illusion using the three-story glass pyramid that sits outside the front of the Louvre. The surface was pasted with black-and-white photographs of surrounding buildings, making it seem like the construct had disappeared entirely. The performance piece was left up for about a month.

5. THE MONA LISA WAS SWIPED FROM IT.

Art heists in movies are typically pretty glamorous affairs, with gentlemen thieves and Swiss-watch planning. But when crooks lifted the Mona Lisa from its perch in the Louvre in 1911, it was a fairly indelicate operation. Three Italian handymen hid in the museum overnight, then removed the painting from the wall and bid a retreat out the door in full view of the public. One of them tried selling it over two years later, but a suspicious dealer phoned police. The ensuing media coverage is thought to be one of the reasons the painting has become one of the most famous in the world.

6. IT ONCE CLOSED BECAUSE OF PICKPOCKETS.

In 2013, nearly half of the museum’s 450 employees refused to come to work because of a nagging pest on the premises: pickpockets. Employees said that the adolescent criminals—admission is free for those under 18—distracted and robbed American tourists and showed only disdain for Louvre workers who tried to intervene. Authorities agreed to increase security measures, and the workers returned to their posts.

7. IT HAS RESIDENT “COPYISTS.”

Few museums sanction forgeries of any type, but the Louvre recognizes the curious subculture of artists who enjoy trying to replicate famous works. Every day from 9:30 to 1:30, “copyists” are allowed to set up easels and study paintings while working on their own replicas. The appeal for the artists is to try to gain insight into the process behind masterpieces; the museum insists that the canvas size not be exactly the same, and that they’re not signed.

8. AN APP CAN HELP YOU FIND AN EXIT.

With more than 8 million visitors annually, the Louvre can often feel congested to tourists unfamiliar with its layout. In 2016, the museum began offering an app that guides users around, offering them a pre-planned tour or an exit strategy. Lost? Hang a left at the Picasso, then a right at the Michelangelo.

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