Socrates Death Painting Analysis Essay

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David

Socrates, famous Athenian philosopher and teacher of Plato, was unjustly convicted and sentenced to death for impiety and corruption of the youth of Athens. In his 1787 painting The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David attempts to capture the moment of Socrates' willing submission to death by hemlock. Plato writes about Socrates' trial, imprisonment, and suicide in three works, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. David includes elements from all three works in his interpretation of Socrates' death and is thus challenged with rendering visually historical events and the philosophical dialogues that surround them.  

During his trial, Socrates chooses death rather than exile to prove that he will not recant his ideas or cease to philosophize[1]. An underlying reason for his conviction, according to Apology, is the threat he poses to powerful figures within the Athenian community[2]. While imprisoned, he refuses Crito's offer to help him escape because he wants to honor the laws of Athens, an exchange detailed in Crito [3]. Phaedo tells us that before his execution, visitors come to say goodbye. After Socrates' three sons, his wife, and all of the women of his household are sent away for showing too much grief, the guard gives him the hemlock and also departs in mourning. This leaves Socrates with five friends, Phaedo, Simmias, Cebes, Echecrates, and Crito. His friends begin to cry as he continues to philosophize, but he scolds them for tainting the moment of his heroic death with their emotional weakness. Socrates dies soon after on his bed after fearlessly drinking the hemlock[4].

Plato was not exclusively concerned with recounting details about the death of Socrates with great historical accuracy; he used his accounts to put forth his own philosophical arguments. Similarly, David is content to deviate from the story presented in Plato's narratives. He combines elements from the three accounts, sometimes disregarding chronology or minor details, in an attempt to convey the most meaningful message possible using a single image. For example, although Phaedo tells us that only five men were present with Socrates at the time of his death, David’s painting shows seven, in addition to the departing guard and four figures who have left the room. David appears to have included clues about the identities, both of figures present in Plato’s accounts and figures he added symbolically, to elucidate his interpretation.

Analysis

Whether or not viewers have consulted Plato’s primary sources, visual information allows them to extract meaning from the painting. They can identify the figure pointing upwards and sitting on the bed as most important. Socrates is positioned centrally, only slightly right of center, and his figure is highlighted with light. In contrast with his mourning friends Socrates noticeably sits upright and appears to philosophize or instruct his friends, showing no signs of despair. His emphatic gesture towards the heavens can be seen as a moralizing reference to the divine, which to Socrates would not have been the standard deities of the Athenians. His muscular body forms more right angles than any other figure’s; other figures slouch and have postures slanted slightly inwards, towards Socrates about whom they are all concerned. He is brought to the fore by his visual centrality, distinctiveness of gestures and emotion compared to the others, as well as by his appearance of physical and emotional strength. All of this tells us what Plato’s accounts communicate as well, that Socrates was a man of courage, virtue, intellectual prowess, and influence.  

The other figures are less conspicuous, either turned away from the viewer or covered in shadows. Each of Socrates’ friends shows grief differently. On the left, the unmoving man sitting at the foot of the bed and looking down appears drained and defeated. The man against the wall appears to have removed himself from the scene to sob. The cup given to Socrates seems to contain something harmful yet central to the story; its presenter is cringing with grief or guilt and turns away from Socrates. He and the cup share center stage with Socrates, and only his bright clothing rival’s Socrates’ posture and centrality as an attraction to the eye. On the right, the figure in dull orange clutches Socrates’ leg and stares up at him, as if cherishing him for the last time. The two men gazing at him from behind appear to respectfully conceal their grief, as Socrates has requested, and listen to his final speech. The other three on the right are sobbing and flailing in overt displays of sorrow. The person ascending the staircase in departure is waving goodbye, and her companions look downcast. Altogether, this appears to be a seen of grieving for the approaching loss of the central figure. The barred windows in the room beyond, the shackles on the ground below the bed, the the bareness of the room and its unadorned furnishings, and the gloomy gray of the walls indicate that this space is likely a prison. 

Socrates’ centrality and reception of the hemlock are not the only clues about his identity; Phaedo tells us Socrates was composing verse, and he could have been doing so with the lyre sitting next to him [5]. Starting from the left, the figures ascending the stairs are most likely Socrates’ family because Phaedo tells us they were sent away[6]. The waving figure and the figure further from the viewer, wearing white, are indistinguishable as male or female and could be sons, slave women, or Socrates’ wife. If the departing figure in yellow is meant to be a son, his age would be too close to Socrates’. It is more likely, due to his possession of a walking staff that could symbolize wisdom acquired with age, that he is one of Socrates’ fellow philosophers. Next, the man against the wall clothed in blue and brown could be a grieving son of Socrates making his way out. The man seated at the foot of the bed is likely Plato (although not actually present), represented with the scrolls and ink below him as one who documents this event. Phaedo tell us that Socrates was given the hemlock by the guard, which means that the man in scarlet is likely the guard. 

To the right of Socrates, the man in dull orange seated on the gray stone with a Greek inscription reading “Athens” could be Crito; in Crito Socrates turns down a chance to escape because of his respect for the laws and the people of Athens. Behind the seated man and to his right, the only identifiable figures are the two with similar, intense gazes—one with light brown hair and gray clothing and the other with gray hair and brown clothing—standing behind Socrates. They are probably Simmias and Cebes, given their similitude and close proximity to one another; Simmias and Cebes are usually spoken about in pairs and address Socrates together in Phaedo[7]. 

And So Socrates Dies, Robert Fowler

The Death of Socrates, Jean-Francois-Pierre Peyron

Relations

Two paintings also depicting the philosopher’s death are The Death of Socrates painted in 1787 by David’s contemporary Jean-Francois-Pierre Peyron, and And So Socrates Dies by Robert Fowler (unknown date). Neither painter’s subject matter is as legible as David’s, especially in their treatment of Socrates’ centrality. In Peyron’s painting it is not clear that Socrates, located to the right rather than in the center, is the most important figure. Lighting gives equal attention to a man on the floor being comforted by a woman, although it is not clear who he is or why he should be brought to immediate attention. While Fowler’s interpretation does give appropriate attention to Socrates as the central figure, only one man in the far left is sobbing, while the rest seem to be pondering Socrates’ death. Fowler’s background creates a non-space for the figures to occupy. The space in Peyron’s painting is more prison-like than that in David’s because the majority of the space is shadowy and obscured, as a real prison would have been. However, the clustered figures are disconnected from the main event of Socrates’ death, and they do not look at Socrates as much as figures from David’s and Fowler’s paintings, which detract from his perceived importance. Both Peyron and Fowler include more shadows and darker hues than David, and their interpretations are generally gloomier, with figures that appear less lively. The facial expressions and postures of figures in David’s interpretation are far more varied than those in Peyron’s and Fowler’s; it is easier to identify Socrates in David’s interpretation than in these other two.

 

Contributor: Kayla T. Matteucci

Bibliography

1. Jowett, Benjamin. "Apology." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 42b-c. Paw Prints, 2011.

2. Jowett, Benjamin. "Apology." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 19a-d. Paw Prints, 2011.

3. Jowett, Benjamin. "Crito." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 48e. Paw Prints, 2011. 

4. Jowett, Benjamin. "Phaedo." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 115b-118a. Paw Prints, 2011.

5. Jowett, Benjamin. "Phaedo." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 58-61c. Paw Prints, 2011. 

6. Jowett, Benjamin. "Phaedo." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 115-118. Paw Prints, 2011. 

7. Jowett, Benjamin. "Phaedo." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 84-88. Paw Prints, 2011.

 

At the height of his youthful popularity and enthusiasm, part of a close circle of friends (including Chernier, Lafayette and Lavoisier) who were purshing for radical political reform, David painted this unusual historical picture in 1787. Commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, leaders in the call for a free market system and more public discussion, this picture depicts the closing moments of the life of Socrates. Condemned to death or exile by the Athenian government for his teaching methods which aroused scepticism and impiety in his students, Socrates heroicly rejected exile and accepted death from hemlock.

For months, David and his friends debated and discussed the importance of this picture. It was to be another father figure (like the Horatii and Brutus), unjustly condemned but who sacrifices himself for an abstract principle. By contrasting the movements of the energetic but firmly controlled Socrates, and his swooning disciples, through the distribution of light and dark accents, David transforms what might have been only a fashionable picture of martyrdom to a clarion call for nobility and self-control even in the face of death.

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