In an article for Bloomberg, Camille Paglia explores a bit of the history and the composition of the painting, “The Death of Marat,” by Jacques Louis-David. The neoclassical painting is one of my personal favorites, and so much more interesting than the more hagiographical depictions of Napoleon by David. Although, as Paglia points out, “The Death of Marat” had it’s hagiographical elements, too.
The picture is a parable of frugality and civic devotion: L’Ami du peuple (Friend of the People) was the newspaper published by Marat on a printing press in his apartment. The white sheet lining the tub (to cushion his sores) is old and patched, while the nicked wooden crate, converted to a humble side table for ink pot and quills, is rudely studded with nails. David streaked brown paint over white primer to achieve the box’s rough yet beautifully glowing surface.
David has reworked the scene. Marat is more muscular here than in real life, and his raw blisters and scales have been erased. Distracting objects shelved on the wall are gone, and the ebony knife handle and boot shape of the tub have been altered. (Both tub and knife survive in a Paris museum.) Marat was not nude but wore a dressing gown over his shoulders. Nor did he die holding Corday’s letter, whose language David has revised to highlight her treachery and sophisticated cadences, at odds with the brusqueness of the urban working class (sans- culottes) whom Marat championed.