Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Socrates, 1787. Oil on canvas
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accused by the Athenian government of denying the gods and corrupting the young through his teachings, Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) was offered the choice of renouncing his beliefs or being sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. David shows him calmly discoursing on the immortality of the soul with his grief-stricken disciples.
Painted in 1787 the picture, with its stoic theme, is perhaps David’s most perfect Neoclassical statement. The printmaker and publisher John Boydell wrote to Sir Joshua Reynolds that it was “the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanze of Raphael… . This work would have done honour to Athens at the time of Pericles.” The subject is loosely based on Plato’s “Phaedo,” but in painting it David consulted a variety of sources, including Diderot’s treatise on dramatic poetry of 1758 and works by the poet André Chenier. The pose of the figure at the foot of the bed was reportedly inspired by a passage in a novel by the English writer Richardson.
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