The Death of Marat
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Death of Marat (La Mort de Marat) is a 1793 painting in the Neoclassic style by Jacques-Louis David and is one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. It is referring to the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, killed on the 13th of July 1793 by Charlotte Corday.
Jean-Paul Marat (24 May 1743 – 13 July 1793), was a Swiss-born French physician, philosopher, political theorist and scientist best known as a radical journalist and politician from the French Revolution.
Marat often sought the comfort of a cold bath to ease violent itchings due to a skin disease long said to have been contracted years earlier, when he was forced to hide from his enemies in the Paris sewers.
David was a close friend of Marat, as well as a strong supporter of Robespierre and the Jacobins. Due to his difficulty speaking (he had a benign but large facial tumor, the result of an injury sustained while fencing) he was overwhelmed by their natural capacity for convincing crowds with their speeches. Determined to memorialize his friend, David painted this portrait of Marat soon after his murder. David's patron requested a work matching the style of David's The Death of Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau. Earlier in the same year, David had completed this painting depicting the first martyr of the Revolution, a deputy murdered on 20 January. The official reason for Lepeletier's death was because he voted for the death of King Louis XVI, though he was possibly also the victim of some obscure plot implicating Spain.
Despite the haste in which David painted this portrait of Marat (the work was completed and presented to the National Convention less than four months after Marat's death), it is generally considered David's best work, a definite step towards modernity, an inspiring political statement. At the time of its creation, all contemporary sources clearly indicate that the painting was not to be dissociated, neither in its exhibition nor in its evaluation, from The Death of Lepeletier. The two were to function as a pair if not properly as a "diptych". Until David's death in 1825, the two paintings remained together. The unfortunate disappearance of The Death of Lepeletier prevents modern viewers from observing the The Death of Marat the way David had planned it.
Marat's figure appears quite idealized. For example, the painting contains no sign of his skin problems. David, however, drew other details from his visit to Marat's residence the day before the assassination: the green rug, the papers, and the pen. David promised his peers in the National Convention that he would later depict their murdered friend invocatively as "écrivant pour le bonheur du peuple" (writing for the good of the people). The Death of Marat is designed to commemorate a personable hero. Although the name Charlotte Corday can be seen on the paper held in Marat's left hand, the assassin herself is not visible. Close inspection of this painting shows Marat at his last breath, when Corday and many others were still nearby (Corday did not try to escape). Therefore, David intended to record more than just the horror of martyrdom. In this sense, for realistic as it is in its details, the painting, as a whole, from its start, is a methodical construction focusing on the victim, a striking set up regarded today by several critics as an "awful beautiful lie"— certainly not a photograph in the forensic scientific sense and barely the simple image it may seem (for instance, in the painting, the knife is not to be seen where Corday had left it impaled in Marat's chest, but on the ground, beside the bathtub).
The Death of Marat has often been compared to Michelangelo's Pietà. Note the elongated arm hanging down in both works. David admired Caravaggio's works, especially Entombment of Christ, which mirrors The Death of Marat's drama and light.
David sought to transfer the sacred qualities long associated with the monarchy and the Catholic Church to the new French Republic. He painted Marat, martyr of the Revolution, in a style reminiscent of a Christian martyr, with the face and body bathed in a soft, glowing light. As Christian Art had done it from its beginning, David also played with multileveled references to Classical Art. Suggestions that Paris could compete with Rome as Capital and Mother City of the Arts and the idea of forming a kind of new Roman Republic appealed to French Revolutionaries, who often formed David's audience.
Widely admired during the Terror whose leaders ordered several copies of the original work (copies made in 1793–1794 by David's pupils to serve propaganda), The Death of Marat slowly ceased to be 'frontpage history' after Robespierre's overthrow and execution. At his request, it was returned to David in 1795, himself being prosecuted for his involvement in the Terror as a close friend of Robespierre (he would have to wait for Napoleon's rise to become prominent in the arts once more). From 1795 to David's death, the painting languished in obscurity and fell into oblivion. During David's exile in Belgium, it was hidden, somewhere in France, by Antoine Gros, David's dearest pupil. In 1826 (and later on), the family tried to sell it, with no success at all. It was rediscovered by the critics in the mid-nineteenth century, especially by Charles Baudelaire whose famous comment in 1846 became the starting point of an increased interest among artists and scholars. In the 20th century, the painting inspired several painters (among them Picasso and Munch who delivered their own versions), poets (Alessandro Mozzambani) and writers (the most famous being Peter Weiss with his play Marat/Sade).
The original painting is currently displayed at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, being there as a result of a decision taken by the family to offer it, in 1886, to the city where the painter had lived quietly and died in exile after the fall of Napoleon. Some of the copies (the exact number of those completed remains uncertain) made by David's pupils (among them, Serangeli and Gérard) survived, notably visible in the museums of Dijon, Reims, and Versailles. The original letter, with bloodstains and bath water marks still visible, has survived and is currently intact in the ownership of Robert Lindsay, 29th Earl of Crawford.
Other artists have also depicted the death of Marat, sometimes long after the facts, whose works refer or not to David's masterpiece. Among these later works, the Charlotte Corday by Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry, painted in 1860, during the Second Empire, when Marat's "dark legend" (the angry monster insatiably hungry for blood) was widely spread among educated people, depicts Charlotte Corday as a true heroine of France, a model of virtue for the younger generations. The versions of Picasso and Munch are less trying to refer to the original context in itself than to confront modern issues with those of David, in terms of style.
- In 1897, the Frenchman Georges Hatot directed La Mort de Marat. This early silent film made for the Lumière Company is a brief single-shot scene of the assassination of the revolutionary. A remarkable aspect of the print of this film available nowadays is that it is hand-coloured. Many early films were hand-painted, including those by the Lumière Company.
- Danton (A. Wajda, France, 1982) – Historical drama (several scenes in David's atelier, including one showing the painting of Marat's portrait).
In popular culture
- Humbert Humbert compares his bathtub to Marat's in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
- In 1986, the painting appears behind Dr. Robert (pseudonym for Robert Howard) on the Blow Monkeys' 'Animal Magic.' album. 'Animal Magic' is the second album from the British band, The Blow Monkeys by the label then known as RCA/Ariola (now BMG). Animal Magic
- The depiction appears on the paper-back cover of Victor Hugo Ninety-Three, with introduction written by Graham Robb.
- The front cover of Cold Chisels third album, East, depicts lead singer Jimmy Barnes in an identical pose, passed out with a cigarette in his mouth.
- Marat's death scene as depicted by David is recreated in the film About Schmidt (2002) by a scene involving Jack Nicholson in an identical pose in a bathtub, letter and pen in hand. In the film, however, the character has merely dozed off.
- Death of Marat is the name of an indie rock band from Arizona. The members are bassist John Brandon, guitarist Michael Juliano, and drummer/vocalist Jef Wright. Juliano and Wright originally played together under the name Mars Observer Mission before officially adopting the Death of Marat moniker, as they said, "after the famous French Revolution painting by Jacques-Louis David".
- The painting is recreated with slight variations in the 2006 movie Land of the Blind in a scene in which Chairman Thorne is murdered while bathing. A laptop substitutes for the paper that Marat is holding in the painting.
- In 2006, the rap singer AKRO, leader of the rap band Starflam, took David's painting as model for the cover of his first solo album, « De l’encre, de la sueur et du sang », which shows him, AKRO, in a re-enactment of the scene.
- In the R.E.M. song "We Walk", a repeated lyric is "Marat's bathing," an open allusion to Jean-Paul Marat.
- The Circle takes the square song "Kill The Switch" references the painting in the chorus, "In death a noble pose, a Marat David."
- Mentioned as the title of a dessert in popular fiction novel "Sunshine" by Robin McKinley.
- South Korean novelist Kim Young-ha writes of The Death of Marat in the opening pages of I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.
- In 2007, A print of the painting is hanging on the wall of the bar where Hank and his father are having a drink. Californication: Season 1, Episode 8: "California Son"
- In 2008, the experimental band Have A Nice Life uses a zoomed in rendition of the painting, showing from the bottom half of the face to half of the written page, as an album cover.
- In 2008, The New Regime's album Coup uses a rendition of the painting as an album cover.
- In the opening scene of Stanisława Przybyszewska's The Danton Case directed in 2008 by Jan Klata, Robespierre is in the bathtub in the same pose as Marat in the painting.
- In the Venezuelan soap opera "La Mujer De Judas", the serial killer La Mujer de Judas used this artwork as one of depictions for one of her victims.
- The band The Motion Sick has a song called 'Jean-Paul' from five points of view concerning the assassination.
- The image depicted of Jean-Paul Marat was recreated by the NME when photoing Carl Barat (The Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things) in an article relating to Carl Barat's illness at the time of the shoot.
- In 2009, the painting is hanging in the house of a suspect in the movie The Pink Panther 2.
- In the video game "Fallout 3", there is a skeleton in the Statesman Hotel who is in a bathtub, holding a note, in the same exact position as Marat in the painting.