David Paints Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1787, the celebrated artist Jacques-Louis David painted The Death of Socrates, which epitomized neoclassicism, an artistic movement that grew in reaction to the frivolous and decorative rococo style. Neoclassical art also reflected the philosophical and moral values of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.

Summary of Event

On August 30, 1748, Jacques-Louis David was born into an affluent Parisian family. From 1766 to 1774, he studied with the renowned neoclassical painter Joseph-Marie Vien. After winning the Prix de Rome Prix de Rome in 1774, David traveled to Italy with his teacher. From 1774 to 1780, David drew from models from antiquity and was inspired by the neoclassical experimentation in Rome. After returning to Paris in 1780, his favorite subjects became mythology and ancient history. In 1787, he painted The Death of Socrates, which was the quintessential neoclassical expression. [kw]David Paints The Death of Socrates (1787) [kw]Socrates, David Paints The Death of (1787) [kw]Death of Socrates, David Paints The (1787) [kw]Paints The Death of Socrates, David (1787) Death of Socrates, The (David) Neoclassicism;art Art;neoclassicism [g]France;1787: David Paints The Death of Socrates[2700] [c]Art;1787: David Paints The Death of Socrates[2700] David, Jacques-Louis Trudaine de la Sablière, Charles-Michel Vien, Joseph-Marie Peyron, Pierre Trudaine de Montigny, Charles-Louis

The painting had been commissioned in 1786 by a wealthy patron, Charles-Michel Trudaine de la Sablière, for the generous sum of 10,000 livres. David frequently attended literary and artistic salon meetings at the home of Charles-Michel and his brother, Charles-Louis Trudaine de Montigny. At these Trudaine Society meetings, David met prominent eighteenth century Enlightenment Enlightenment;France writers, liberal nobility, and the intellectual elite. These meetings helped shape his artistic, social, and political development.

During the eighteenth century, an important shift occurred in European culture. Intellectuals emphasized the possibility of improving society through the use of reason and began to challenge the political power of the aristocracy as well as the moral authority of the Church. Eventually, trends toward democracy and rationality resulted in political and social changes, especially in France, where a violent revolution succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy. At the same time, the flowery, decorative style of art known as rococo, Rococo which had been popular earlier in the century, was associated with the frivolity, wastefulness, and idleness of those who merely inherited wealth and power rather than earning it through their own merits and labors. Artists, architects, and musicians began to place more value on clarity and simplicity of line, dropping the excessive ornamentation that had characterized the preceding styles.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David.

(Courtesy, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Sponsorship of art began to shift, so that the middle class played a larger role in supporting art and defining its values. For inspiration, many turned to the ancient Greco-Roman heritage, especially sculpture and architecture. This trend, which was later called the neoclassical movement, also included the use of art to promote moral action, self-sacrifice, and heroism. Although the ancient Greeks and Romans were idealized at this time, and many formal elements were borrowed from them, the eighteenth century movement was essentially secular and democratic, reflecting the values of the French Revolution and its struggle to survive in the face of significant military, political, and economic challenges.

Both the visual and political dimensions of the neoclassical style can be seen in the paintings of David, who is regarded as the most prominent artist of the genre, and of David’s many paintings, the clearest and most well-known example of the neoclassical style is his Death of Socrates. The choice of this subject matter in 1787 had a special resonance with the Enlightenment and revolutionary ideas of the time.

Socrates Socrates (469-399 b.c.e.) was a great philosopher who emphasized rationality over unquestioned belief, as did the Enlightenment thinkers of David’s time. Socrates’ respect for the law and truth had turned the ruling factions against him. In 399 b.c.e., he was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens and for not acknowledging the state’s gods. As a prominent historical figure, Socrates was easily associated with an idealized notion of ancient Greece. Socrates’ heroic sacrifice could provide a psychological substitute for the martyrdom of Christ and the saints. Also, Socrates’ uncompromising morality, his unflinching sense of duty to the state, and his calm fearlessness could be viewed as models for desirable behavior, just two years before the French Revolution. By drinking the cup of poison provided for the completion of his death sentence, Socrates showed that he was willing to die cheerfully for his values, that he would never stop teaching and questioning those around him.

Although the painting quotes from classical Greek sculpture in the poses, musculature, treatment of fabric, and other features of the characters being represented, it also makes use of a full range of techniques from previous generations of Renaissance and Baroque painters, especially the use of dramatic lighting. The bright light on Socrates and his disciples contrasts sharply with the gloomy atmosphere of the prison; it is an almost literal representation of the “light of reason” shining forth in the darkness.

The seriousness of the figures’ expressions and the lack of ornamentation in the painting reinforce the sense of purpose and economy of content favored by the neoclassical artists. In their statuesque poses, Socrates and his students are frozen in a moment of glory, and David himself shares in this glory by painting his own initials as if they are carved into the block that supports Plato, Socrates’ most illustrious follower. Although he was taking historical liberty by including Plato in the scene, David uses the image of Plato and the block on which he sits to affirm an ongoing, timeless connection between his own culture and the existence of the revered philosophers.

When The Death of Socrates was first exhibited at the Salon of 1787, it received phenomenal critical acclaim by both the art world and the public. David’s chief rival, Pierre Peyron, exhibited a painting on the same subject, and the general consensus was that David’s painting was far superior.

As a result, Peyron withdrew from public life and the art world, and David became the preeminent French artist. Admirers of David’s painting included the print publisher John Boydell, the prominent English artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Thomas Jefferson. With its message of stoic self-sacrifice and resistance to unfair authority, the Death of Socrates was in complete harmony with the sentiments of the imminent French Revolution.


David became the leading artist of the French Revolution, supported Robespierre, and voted for the execution of King Louis XVI. When Napoleon Napoleon I Napoleon I;Jacques-Louis David[David] rose to power in 1799, David became his painter. After Napoleon’s fall, David was exiled to Brussels, Belgium, in 1815 and died in 1825.

David had been a remarkable teacher who influenced a generation of artists, including Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824), François Gerard (1770-1837), Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). These students carried on David’s neoclassicist legacy, but their individual styles or expanded palette provided the transition to Romanticism, [p]Romanticism;art Art;Romanticism which succeeded neoclassicism in the mid-eighteenth century and was in vogue from about 1789 to 1832 in both Europe and North America. In their paintings, Girodet-Trioson and Gerard anticipated the dreamlike, imaginative Romantic style. Ingres painted exotic, non-European subjects, such as odalisques (concubines in a harem). Gros, who was one of David’s favorite pupils and administered the studio after David was exiled, became a leader in the development of Romanticism. In the early 1800’s, Gros was France’s most celebrated artist. His bright palette and the dynamic, emotional tone of his paintings greatly impressed the early Romantics, especially Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and Jean Louis André Théodore Gericault (1791-1824).

After David’s patron, Charles-Michel Trudaine de la Sablière, and his brother Charles-Louis Trudaine de Montigny were executed by guillotine in 1794, ownership of The Death of Socrates passed to Louise Trudaine de Montigny (d. 1802) and subsequently to various relatives and descendants. In 1931, The Death of Socrates was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crow, Thomas. Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. A scholarly political and aesthetic study, focusing on David and two of his pupils. Includes a section on David’s Death of Socrates. Illustrated. Extensive notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Einecke, Claudia. Final Moments: Peyron, David, and “The Death of Socrates.” Omaha, Neb.: Joslyn Art Museum, 2001. Catalog of an exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum, February 3-April 1, 2001, with essays on the fierce competition between the two artists and their paintings on the same theme. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eitner, Lorenz. Nineteenth Century European Painting: David to Cezanne. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. Includes studies of the classical revival, the arts in France at the end of the eighteenth century, and David and his school. Illustrated. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Simon. David. London: Phaidon, 1999. This in-depth analysis of David’s art, politics, and values asserts that David was the most significant painter of his time. Illustrated. Bibliography, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monneret, Sophie. David and Neo-classicism. Paris: Pierre Terrail, 1999. More than 160 color illustrations, many full-page. A well-documented study that maintains that David’s art was a turning point in history and reflected the paradoxes of his time. Bibliography.

Early Enlightenment in France

Revival of the Paris Salon

Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts Is Founded

Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

Fall of the Bastille

Napoleon Rises to Power in France

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Louis XVI; Sir Joshua Reynolds; Robespierre. Death of Socrates, The (David) Neoclassicism;art Art;neoclassicism

Categories: History