The Death Of Marat Painting Analysis Essay

The Death of Marat (French: La Mort de Marat or Marat Assassiné) is a 1793 painting by Jacques-Louis David of the murdered French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. It is one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. David was the leading French painter, as well as a Montagnard and a member of the revolutionary Committee of General Security. The painting shows the radical journalist lying dead in his bath on 13 July 1793 after his murder by Charlotte Corday. Painted in the months after Marat's murder, it has been described by T. J. Clark as the first modernist painting, for "the way it took the stuff of politics as its material, and did not transmute it".

The murder[edit]

Marat (24 May 1743 – 13 July 1793) was one of the leaders of the Montagnards, the radical faction ascendant in French politics during the Reign of Terror until the Thermidorian Reaction. Charlotte Corday was a Girondin from a minor aristocratic family and a political enemy of Marat who blamed him for the September Massacre. She gained entrance to Marat's rooms with a note promising details of a counter-revolutionary ring in Caen.

Marat suffered from a skin condition that caused him to spend much of his time in his bathtub; he would often work there. Corday fatally stabbed Marat, but she did not attempt to flee. She was later tried and executed for the murder.

David's politics[edit]

As well as being the leading French painter of his generation, David was a prominent Montagnard, and a Jacobin, aligned with Marat and Maximilian Robespierre. A deputy of the Museum section at the Convention, he voted for the death of the King, and served on the Committee of General Security, where he actively participated in the sentencing and imprisonment of many and eventually presided over the "section des interrogatoires". He was also on the Committee of Public Instruction.[1]


Marat's figure is idealized.[2] For example, the painting contains no sign of his skin problems, his skin appears clean and unblemished. 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, she 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.[3] 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.[2] As Christian art had done 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.

Later history[edit]

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 member of the Comité de Sureté Général (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. 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[further explanation needed] 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, Gioacchino Giuseppe 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.[4]

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. Brazilian artist Vik Muniz created a version composed of contents from a city landfill as part of his "Pictures of Garbage[5]" series.

In popular culture[edit]

  • In 1897, the French director Georges Hatot made a movie entitled 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.
  • The composition influenced one of the scenes in Stanley Kubrick's 1975 adaptation of Barry Lyndon.[citation needed]
  • The cover art of the 1980 album East by Australian pub rock band Cold Chisel, was inspired by the painting.
  • Andrzej Wajda's 1983 film Danton includes several scenes in David's atelier, including one showing the painting of Marat's portrait.
  • Derek Jarman's 1986 film Caravaggio imitates the painting in a scene where the chronicler, head bound in a towel (but writing here with a typewriter), slouches back in his tub, one arm extended outside the tub.
  • Vik Muniz recreated the Death of Marat with waste from a massive landfill near Rio de Janeiro in his 2010 documentary Waste Land. The picture is prominently featured on the DVD cover.
  • Steve Goodman re-created the painting (with himself in place of Marat) for the cover of his 1977 album Say It in Private.
  • In the 2002 movie, About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson’s character Warren falls asleep in the bath whilst composing a letter, recreating David's painting.
  • The painting was used as the album art for American band Have a Nice Life's 2008 album Deathconsciousness.
  • In the October 23, 2008, episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Season 9, Episode 3 - Art Imitates Life) a serial killer poses his victims peculiarly, one such victim's posture being an homage to David's painting.[citation needed]
  • In 2013, it was gender-swapped with Lady Gaga in Marat's spot for ARTPOP. MTV
  • In the 2014 video game Assassin's Creed Unity, Arno Dorian investigates the death of Jean-Paul Marat, bringing Charlotte Corday to justice. The body of Jean-Paul is as given in the painting by Jacques-Louis David.
  • The painting was used as the album art for British Black Metal band Sykelig Englen's 2015 album Hymns of the Dead. [6]



  • T J Clark, "Painting in the Year Two", in Representations, No. 47, Special Issue: National Cultures before Nationalism (Summer, 1994), pp. 13–63.
  • Thibaudeau, M.A., Vie de David, Bruxelles (1826)
  • Delécluze, E., Louis David, son école et son temps, Paris, (1855) re-edition Macula (1983) – First-hand testimony by a pupil of David
  • David, J.L., Le peintre Louis David 1748–1825. Souvenirs & Documents inédits par J.L. David son Petit-Fils, ed. Victor Havard, Paris (1880)
  • Holma, Klaus, David. Son évolution, son style, Paris (1940)
  • Adhé mar Jean, David. Naissance du génie d'un peintre, ed. Raoul Solar, Paris (1953)
  • Bowman, F.P., 'Le culte de Marat, figure de Jésus', Le Christ romantique, ed. Droz, Genève, pp. 62 sq. (1973)
  • Wildenstein, Daniel et Guy, Documents complémentaires au catalogue de l’oeuvre de Louis David, Paris, Fondation Wildenstein (1973) – fondamental source to track all influences constituting David's visual culture
  • Starobinski, Jean, 1789, les emblèmes de la raison, ed. Flammarion, Paris (1979)
  • Schnapper, Antoine, David témoin de son temps, ed. Office du Livre, Fribourg (1980)
  • Kruft, H.-W., "An antique model for David's Marat" in The Burlington Magazine CXXV, 967 (October 1983), pp. 605–607; CXXVI, 973 (April 84)
  • Traeger, Jorg, Der Tod des Marat: Revolution des menschenbildes, ed. Prestel, München (1986)
  • Thévoz, Michel, Le théâtre du crime. Essai sur la peinture de David, éd. de Minuit, Paris (1989)
  • Guilhaumou, J., La mort de Marat, ed. Complexe, Bruxelles (1989)
  • Mortier, R., 'La mort de Marat dans l'imagerie révolutionnaire', Bulletin de la Classe des Beaux-Arts, Académie Royale de Belgique, 6ème série, tome I, 10–11 (1990), pp. 131–144
  • Simon, Robert, "David’s Martyr-Portrait of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau and the conundrums of Revolutionary Representation" in Art History, vol.14, n°4 (December 1991), pp. 459–487
  • Sérullaz, Arlette, Inventaire général des dessins. Ecole française. Dessins de Jacques-Louis David 1748–1825, Paris (1991)
  • David contre David, actes du colloque au Louvre du 6–10 décembre 1989, éd. R. Michel, Paris (1993) [M. Bleyl, "Marat : du portrait à la peinture d'histoire"]
  • Malvone, Laura, "L'Évènement politique en peinture. A propos du Marat de David" in Mélanges de l'École française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée, n° 106, 1 (1994)
  • Pacco, M., De Vouet à David. Peintures françaises du Musée d'Art Ancien, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, ed. MRBAB, Bruxelles (1994)
  • Hofmann, Werner, Une époque en rupture 1750–1830, Gallimard, Paris (1995)
  • Crow, T., Emulation. Making artists for Revolutionary France, ed. Yale University Press, New Haven London (1995)
  • Monneret, Sophie, David et le néoclassicisme, ed. Terrail, Paris (1998)
  • Robespierre, edited by Colin Haydon & William Doyle, Cambridge (1999)
  • Lajer-Burcharth, E., Necklines. The art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror, ed. Yale University Press, New Haven London (1999)
  • Lee, S., David, ed. Phaidon, London (1999); * Aston, Nigel, Religion and Revolution in France, 1780–1804, McMillan, London (2000)
  • Jacques-Louis David’s Marat, edited by William Vaughan & Helen Weston, Cambridge (2000)
  • Rosenberg, Pierre & Louis-Antoine Prat, Jacques-Louis David 1748–1825. Catalogue raisonné des dessins, 2 volumes, éd. Leonardo Arte, Milan (2002)
  • Idem, Peronnet, Benjamin, « Un album inédit de David », Revue de l’Art, n°142, (2003–2004) pp. 45–83
  • Coquard, Olivier, "Marat assassiné. Reconstitution abusive" in Historia Mensuel, n°691 (juillet 2004)
  • Vanden Berghe, Marc & Ioana Plesca, Nouvelles perspectives sur la Mort de Marat: entre modèle jésuite et références mythologiques, Bruxelles (2004) / New perspectives for David's Death of Marat, Brussels (2004), available at the KBR, Brussels.
  • Idem, Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau sur son lit de mort par Jacques Louis-David : saint Sébastien révolutionnaire, miroir multiréférencé de Rome, Brussels (2005), available at the KBR, Brussels.
  • Sainte-Fare Garnot, N., Jacques-Louis David 1748–1825, Paris, Ed. Chaudun (2005)
  • Johnson, Dorothy, Jacques-Louis David: New Perspectives, University of Delaware Press (2006)
  • Guilhaumou, Jacques, La mort de Marat (2006)
  • Plume de Marat – Plumes sur Marat, pour une bibliographie générale, (Chantiers Marat, vol. 9–10), Editions Pôle Nord, Bruxelles (2006)
  • Angelitti, Silvana, "La Morte di Marat e la Pietà di Michelangelo" in La propaganda nella storia, sl, (sd),
  • Pesce, Luigi, Marat assassinato : il tema del braccio della morte : realismo caravagesco e ars moriendi in David, s.ed., sl, (2007)
  • "A cinema of loneliness" by Robert Kolker, Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick
Detail of The Death of Marat showing the paper held in Marat's left hand. The letter reads (in French) "Il suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir droit a votre bienveillance" or in English, "Given that I am unhappy, I have a right to your help"
One of two versions of Death of Marat made by Edvard Munch in 1907

A strangely hypnotic portrait, Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat has emerged as one of the most famous images of the blood-soaked French Revolution. The history behind this morbid masterpiece is even richer than its color palette. 

1. The Death of Marat depicts a gruesome political murder

Outspoken journalist and notable member of the Montagnards, Jean-Paul Marat would never see the French Revolution's conclusion in 1799. On July 13th of 1793, the 50-year-old writer was murdered by 24-year-old Charlotte Corday, who was either, depending on the propaganda you believe, a supporter of the monarchy or a supporter of the less radical Girondins, and blamed Marat for the escalating violence of the revolution. After making no attempt to escape after stabbing him, Corday was apprehended and executed by guillotine just four days later.

2. The Death of Marat was propaganda.

Not only the leading artist of his time, but also a zealous Jacobin and "official artist" of the radical revolutionary cause, David was asked by the revolutionary government to glorify three of its lost members for political gain. Essentially, David was charged with making Marat a publicly recognized martyr to the cause and an epic hero.

3. It's both an idealized and accurate portrait of Marat

The propaganda angle informed David's creative choices, urging him to blend fact and fiction. Almost like a crime scene photo, David carefully captured the green rug, bathtub, papers and pen left behind by the late revolutionary. However, he opted to exclude Marat's physical imperfections. 

The reason Marat was working in the bathtub to begin with was because he suffered from a skin condition, likely severe eczema. To soothe his skin, he habitually bathed in oatmeal. In depicting Marat’s final bath, David decided to portray his friend as a beautiful beacon, free of such superficial flaws. 

4. David pulled from religious inspiration to make Marat appear like a martyr.

The positioning of Marat's right arm, long and limp, cascading down the canvas, has drawn comparisons to the death pose of Jesus in Caravaggio's The Entombment of Christ. David was a noted fan of the 16th century Italian painter and also mimicked his use of light. 

5. David also drew from Greek and Roman sculpture.

Art historian E.H. Gombrich explained of the creation of The Death of Marat:

"He had learned from the study of Greek and Roman sculpture how to model the muscles and sinews of the body, and gave it the appearance of noble beauty; he had also learned from classical art to leave out all the details which were not essential to the main effect, and to aim at simplicity.” 

6. The Death of Marat was revolutionary for several reasons.

The first is that it depicts a martyr of the French Revolution. The second is that it was painted in the midst of the French Revolution, mere months after Marat's demise. The last revolutionary element relates to how it marked a change from David's typical subject matter. He'd previously pulled his subjects from classical antiquity, but here his muse was a contemporary figure.

7. The Death of Marat is the only one of David’s propaganda paintings to survive.

The Death of Lepeletier was destroyed on July 27th, 1794 during the coup d'état known as the Thermidorian Reaction. The Death of Bara was never completed. 

8. David decided to exclude Marat's killer almost completely.

While historian Alphonse de Lamartine would go on to describe Corday as "the Angel of Assassination," David was understandably less fond of Marat's murderer. He chose instead to focus on the man he admired, and only includes a mention of Corday in the writings surrounding Marat's corpse. 

Similarly, he chose to remove the offending knife from his colleague's chest where Corday had left it. Instead, it sits, stained with blood, on the floor. 

9. Corday's treachery is revealed in Marat's hand.

Corday gained access to Marat's private moment by entreating the writer to read a petition. As depicted by David, he was about to sign it as he was stabbed. The artist makes it clear that in his dying moments Marat's last thoughts were only of the revolution. 

10. The Death of Marat was initially popular.

Presented by David to his peers in November 15, 1793, the painting was instantly so beloved by the Montagnards and their sympathizers that it was hung in the hall of their National Convention of Deputies. Reproductions were also made for further propaganda use. But as the tide turned against the Montagnards, so too did opinion of the painting. To protect it, David hid the work when he himself was exiled for his part in the Reign of Terror.

11. The Death of Marat got a second life after David's death.

Twenty-one years after David passed away in 1825, renewed interest came from French art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire's praises of the long-forgotten portrait. 

Baudelaire wrote: 

“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 … This work contains something both poignant and tender; a soul is flying in the cold air of this room, on these cold walls, around this cold funerary tub.” 

12. The iconic French painting now calls Brussels home.

After having been banished for a second time after the fall of Napoleon, David fled with the painting and lived out the rest of his days in the Belgian capital. Sixty-one years later, David’s family decided to bequeath the painting to the city that accepted David. And the Royal Museum of Fine Arts has been proud to display The Death of Marat since 1886. 

However, reproductions can be found in museums in Dijon, Reims, and Versailles. 

13. It has inspired a couple of major tributes.

In 1907, Edvard Munch, best known for The Scream, made an interpretation that put a nude Corday front and center. Picasso also applied his unique vision to the subject in 1931. 

14. It's repeatedly referenced in pop culture.

In the movies, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Derek Jarman's Caravaggio mimic the painting’s composition in their mise-en-scene. Andrzej Wajda's Danton includes a scene of David's creation of The Death of Marat. The scene was brought to life in Abel Gance's 1927 film Napoleon. It was rendered in garbage in the landfill documentary Waste Land

In 2013, it was gender-swapped with Lady Gaga in Marat's spot for ARTPOP. And it has even been memed in response to contemporary conflicts. 

15. The Death of Marat has become more famous than Marat.

Because of David's moving—if manipulative—depiction of his fallen friend, The Death of Marat has struck a chord and spent the last two centuries becoming a highly recognized painting. Though some viewers might not know it by name, they recognize its influential iconography. But Marat the man is known primarily because of this very portrait.


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