"The drama is here, vivid in its pitiful horror. This painting is David's masterpiece and one of the great curiosities of modern art because, by a strange feat, it has nothing trivial or vile." Baudelaire
Oil on Canvas, 1793 Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts at Brussels
Marat, friend of Robespierre, Jacobin deputy to the Convention, and editor-in-chief of L'Ami du Peuple, was a fiery orator; he was also a violent man, quick to take offense. Some saw him as an intransigent patriot; for others he was merely a hateful demagogue On July 13, 1793, a young Royalist from Caen, Charlotte Corday, managed, by a clever subterfuge, to gain entry into his apartment. When Marat agreed to receive her, she stabbed him in his bathtub, where he was accustomed to sit hour after hour treating the disfiguring skin disease from which he suffered.
David, Marat's colleague in the Convention, had visited him only the day before the murder, and he recalled the setting of the room vividlly, the tub, the sheet, the green rug, the wooden packing case, and above all, the pen of the journalist. He saw in Marat a model of antique "virtue." The day after the murder, David was invited by the Convention to make arrangements for the funeral ceremony, and to paint Marat's portrait. He accepted with enthusiasm, but the decomposed state of the body made a true-to-life representation of the victim impossible. This circumstance, coupled with David's own emotional state, resulted in the creation of this idealized image.
Marat is dying: his eyelids droop, his head weighs heavily on his shoulder, his right arm slides to the ground. His body, as painted by David, is that of a healthy man, still young. The scene inevitably calls to mind a rendering of the "Descent from the Cross." The face is marked by suffering, but is also gentle and suffused by a growing peacefulness as the pangs of death loosen their grip. David has surrounded Marat with a number of details borrowed from his subject's world, including the knife and Charlotte Corday's petition, attempting to suggest through these objects both the victim's simplicity and grandeur, and the perfidy of the assassin. The petition ("My great unhappiness gives me a right to your kindness"), the assignat Marat was preparing for some poor unfortunate ("you will give this assignat to that mother of five children whose husband died in the defense of his country"), the makeshift writing-table and the mended sheet are the means by which David discreetly bears witness to his admiration and indignation.
The face, the body, and the objects are suffused with a clear light, which is softer as it falls on the victim's features and harsher as it illuminates the assassin's petition. David leaves the rest of his model in shadow. In this sober and subtle interplay of elements can be seen, in perfect harmony with the drawing, the blend of compassion and outrage David felt at the sight of the victim. The painting was presented to the Coinvention on 15 November 1793. It immediately the object of extravagant praise; one critic claimed "the face expresses a supreme kindness and an exemplary revolutionary spirit carried to the point of sacrifice."
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