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The Death of Marat

The Death of Marat (1793)

by Jacques-Louis David

Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels

On the 13th of July in 1793, a leader of the French Revolution was brutally murdered in his bathtub.

Painted by Jacques-Louis David, this work of art commemorates his friend Jean-Paul Marat: a popular political theorist, writer, and radical voice of the French Revolution. Here he is shown moments after being stabbed by the royalist Charlotte Corday in his home in Paris. David has done everything possible to commemorate Marat as a noble hero who died tragically, and innocently at the hands of a cunning trickster.

Marat is shown slumped in his bathtub. To his right, a crate that serves as a make-shift desk, is dated to Year II of the Revolution (L'AN DEUX) and reads TO MARAT, from DAVID (À MARAT, DAVID). The absence of any other furnishings, decorations, or even any semblance of a room, places all the focus on Marat himself, and his face is in full view.

Blood trickles from a wound in his right upper chest, and if you look closely, you can see that the bathwater has turned red. The murder weapon, a bloodied knife, is visible on the floor in the painting’s foreground. In his right hand, he still holds a pen which stands upright, suggesting that despite his death, the power of his writing will live on eternally.

In his left hand, he holds the letter that Charlotte Corday used in order to trick Marat and gain entrance to his room. It is dated and addressed from Charlotte to ‘citizen’ Marat, and reads something along the lines of:

Given that I am greatly unhappy, I am entitled to your benevolence.

- du July 13, 1793. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday au citoyan Marat. Il suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir droit a votre bienveillance.

This letter presents Marat as a noble man who offered to help a woman in need. In reality, Charlotte claimed to have confidential information regarding a group of fugitives, and Marat invited her in so that he could make note of the offenders’ names.

In addition, David has idealized Marat’s features and his body. Marat had a disfiguring skin condition which demanded the daily need of medicinal baths, but here, no visible signs of the skin disease can be seen; in fact, his skin is ideally smooth. The rendering of his body has been given so much care and anatomical attention; notice in particular the realistic rendering of his collarbone that has been shaded dramatically, thereby drawing extra attention to his wound.

The way in which Marat’s head slumps upon his shoulder, and his limp elongated arm dangles over the edge of the bathtub, purposefully recall depictions of Christ’s deposition. David has rendered his wound in a manner which echoes Christ’s stigmata. In addition, Marat’s face and arm are illuminated by a soft and mysterious source of light that endows him with an almost heavenly glow. Much like Christ himself, his face doesn’t exhibit pain; he looks at peace.

These deliberate references to a Christian Martyr show how David truly wanted to portray Marat as a political martyr.

It is a poignantly beautiful painting that shows how art can be used as deceivingly powerful political propaganda.

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