Pictures in Focus: The Death of Marat (1793) and Napoleon in His Study (1812)
A comparative study
The painter Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) was both a revolutionary and an artist. He was an active supporter of the French Revolution and later appointed First Painter to the Emperor Napoleon. Neither Marat or Napoleon posed for the portraits by David shown on this page. David has used both the men and their portraits as symbols of larger social and civic ideals. In The Death of Marat by David and his studio the dying revolutionary becomes a martyred hero of the people while Napoleon is portrayed, not as a conquering hero, but as the hard-working and tireless leader of France.
Studio of Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat. Oil on canvas, 162.5 x 130
Marat was the fiery editor-in-chief of the revolutionary newspaper L’Ami du people and a friend of Robespierre, one of the leaders of the Reign of Terror. Marat suffered from a skin disease and spent long hours in the bath where he worked and received visitors. Charlotte Corday, a young and ardent royalist, wrote to him requesting an interview and then murdered Marat in his bath. David paints Marat dying in the bath, still clutching the assassin’s letter.
Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812. Oil on canvas, 203.9 x 125.1 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1961.9.15.
Napoleon’s portrait was commissioned by Lord Douglas, an English descendant of James Stuart. Douglas was an admirer of the French Emperor and optimistically hoped for Napoleon’s assistance in restoring the Stuarts to the British throne. David no longer had direct access to the Emperor when he painted this rather nostalgic and almost elegiac portrait of the French leader.
Background and light
The portrait of Marat is stark and uncompromising. The background is black and emphasis is placed on the dying figure, which is painted as if lit by spotlight. A warm light falls on Marat’s face and shoulders, infusing him with sympathy and a halo-like glow. A harsher, almost clinical light shines on Corday’s letter, possibly signifying the artist’s judgement of the murderer.
The light in the portrait of Napoleon also falls from the left to the right but is diffused across the entire image. The angle and golden hue of the light suggests the dawn, a fact corroborated by the clock, which reads a quarter past four. Napoleon was said to rise between three and five in the morning to attend to business but the guttering candle – another light source – suggests he has been working all night.
David painted Marat with a reverence which is visible in the dying man’s relaxing facial features and his right arm, which seems to be drifting to the ground. Only his hands retain any trace of tension: the left still holds Corday’s letter and the right grasps his pen. The bloodied knife lies on the floor, partially obscured by shadow, but the pen catches the light and forms a strong vertical axis, suggesting that it is indeed mightier than the sword. Marat’s posture strongly recalls a deposition (Christ’s descent from the cross).
Napoleon was 42 years old at the time of this portrait but signs of fatigue, as well as dignity and poise, are visible in his face. Although the painting is set in the very early morning, David felt it inappropriate to paint the Emperor in his dressing gown. Instead he is depicted in the uniform of the Colonel of the Grenadier. The white of his waistcoat and breeches create a vertical axis down the centre of the image, further accentuated by the elongated clock, pillar, bookshelves and ornate gilt furniture. His hand is tucked into his waistcoat as was characteristic, and he wears the medals of the Legion of Honour and the Iron Cross, both of which were founded by Napoleon.
Although he is portrayed in uniform, Napoleon is not depicted as brash or swaggering. He appears to be carrying a heavy responsibility, working through the night despite his weariness, on behalf of the French people. Both the French Republic and David’s art centred on the Roman model of civic virtue, in stark opposition to the supposedly lax morals of ancien régime monarchy. Antiquity and the values of the Roman Republic are called upon in this Neoclassical painting to present Napoleon as a tireless leader and man of the people.
Text: Lindsay Rothwell, Education Department