Arts & Culture

The Death of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels)1787

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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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  • Title: The Death of Socrates
  • Date Created: 1787
  • Physical Dimensions: w1962 x h1295 mm
  • Type: Paintings
  • External Link: MMA
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • provenance extent: Complete
  • provenance: Charles-Louis Trudaine de Montigny, Paris (1787–d. 1794); his widow, Louise Trudaine de Montigny, Paris (1794–d. 1802); her brother, M. Micault de Courbeton (1802–at least 1803); by descent to the marquis de Vérac (about 1818–at least 1846; on long-term loan to the Musée de Luxembourg, 1818?–?1864); marquise de Vérac (in 1864); her son-in-law, comte de Rouge (until 1872; his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, April 8, 1872, no. 1, for Fr 17,600 to Bianchi); Marius Bianchi, Paris (from 1872); Mme Marius Bianchi (Mathilde Jeanin, David's great-granddaughter), Paris (in 1913); her daughters, vicomtesse de Fleury, comtesse Murat, and marquise de Ludre-Frolois, Paris (until 1931; sold to MMA)
  • medium extent: Complete
  • inscription extent: Complete
  • inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed: (lower left) L.D / MDCCLXXXVII; (right, on bench) L. David; (right, on bench, in Greek) Athenaion (of Athens)
  • description extent: Complete
  • credit line extent: Complete
  • credit line: Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931
  • Artist: Jacques-Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels)

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