For those who read my columns every week, this is my last hurrah, my final issue. After all the columns I’ve written this year, from Byzantine mosaics to Mesoamerican sculpture, I have introduced artworks from many cultures and time periods. Though I’ve tried to touch on a wide array of art and issues, I’m sure some of you have wondered what my favorite work of art is: I present to you Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates.”
Currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this painting represents the pinnacle of neoclassicism and is undoubtedly David’s most famous work. The piece dates back to 1787, two years before revolution rocked France. Prior to the upheaval, Europe was enthralled by the art and culture of classical Greece and Rome. The run-up to the French Revolution coincided with building tensions between classes and growing authoritarianism of King Louis XVI.
The scene depicts the legendary Greek philosopher Socrates, convicted by an Athenian tribunal for impiety and corrupting the youth. His punishment was death. Here we can see the old sophist sitting on a bed in a grim, dark, stone chamber, holding up a finger of rhetorical authority in defiance as he reaches out for a cup of poisonous hemlock. Those who surround him–his students and followers–exude pain, sorrow and emotion at what is to be his final moments of life. The suffering is best shown by the young man holding out the deadly cup to Socrates, who cannot even bear to look at the solemn suicide.
One character in this picture remains stoic and emotionless. Believed to be Socrates’ close follower Plato, who was not present at his teacher’s death, he is also marked by the scroll and ink on the ground next to him, symbolizing his writing of the “Phaedo,” which immortalized the story of Socrates’ death. His lack of emotion and bowed head seem to signify the weight of Greece’s philosophical knowledge and responsibility falling onto him in the aftermath of the suicide.
David’s style and form is on full display with expertly defined musculature and elegantly flowing drapery, both contrasting the sharp lines of the stone blocks and furniture. The masterful lighting also serves to dramatize the impassioned scene.
Beyond the clear artistic skill of the painting, I love its message and context in history. Rather than leave Athens, recant his beliefs or stop teaching his followers, he took death willingly. It’s not only a story of defending wisdom, philosophy and free expression, but of being principled enough to pay the ultimate price in the service of those values. It is a truly inspiring tale and one that is executed so perfectly in this piece. The reason for its temporal relevance is likely because the same sentiment whirled around Paris and its outskirts. The unjust treatment of French citizens by a heavy-handed government made this a striking parallel. The years following this work’s completion were tumultuous for France, with war, intervening autocrats and unstable efforts at republicanism taking heavy tolls on the people’s fight for liberty.
For these reasons, I always make sure to stop by David’s “The Death of Socrates” when I visit The Met, and a copy hangs over my desk at home to remind me of the power that knowledge has, and what those have sacrificed to protect that power.
Though I have always left my readers with a parting task of questioning the way we think and challenging the way we act, I ask you now to do one final thing… find your work. Find the one that speaks to you, that you love for its beauty or its meaning, that you would hang over your bed, your desk or your mantle. The work of art–from any time period, style, artist or culture–that you admire, cherish and respect for whatever reasons you have. That’s the beginning. That’s when your humanist within springs forth and you see art in a whole new light. You find joy in it, and peace, knowledge and love too.
Find your work. The rest will come as it may, and it always does.