Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 26, 2000
William Vaughan and Helen Weston The Death of Marat Cambridge University Press, 1999. 192 pp.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (0521563372)

William Vaughan and Helen Weston are contributing editors to this volume in a recently launched series by Cambridge University Press, Masterpieces of Western Painting. Each volume in the series offers a group of essays on a single painting by specialists in the field representing different methodological perspectives. The objective is to provide a concise history and reassessment of paintings that belong to the Western canon. A volume of this nature devoted to David’s Marat is timely since the field of David studies has undergone an intense period of revitalization over the past decade, launched by the 1989 David retrospective exhibition at the Louvre. The Marat had long been considered an icon of the French Revolution and this makes it challenging to offer new perspectives. This book succeeds, however, in doing just that and in admirably fulfilling the goals of this series. The introduction by Vaughan and Weston and the subsequent six essays are written in a clear and limpid prose. Each essay presents new research and perspectives on this extremely significant painting with an emphasis on sound scholarship and historical contextualization.

After receiving immediate acclaim and success in 1793, the fortunes of the painting in the 19th and first half of the 20th century fluctuated, quite expectedly, with the continual reevaluations of Marat’s reputation by differing political factions and regimes. In the year 2000 it remains an icon of the French Revolution and the singular composition that has come to define David as the political painter par excellence of the Revolution. In the past twenty years the Death of Marat has also been a locus of fascination for art historians and historians of the French Revolution and has been the subject of extensive study in numerous articles, essays, and books. The celebrations of the bicentennial of the French Revolution were only one factor in this revival of interest. The ambiguity of Marat as a tainted hero, murdered ignominiously in his bathtub by a fervent young woman, not for his deeds but for his words, has struck a chord. In seeking to commemorate the one “significant” moment of his life, David chose to depict Marat breathing his last breath, slumped literally in a bloodied bath. Many elements in the painting serve as a counterbalance to the heroic, idealized figure, including a curious narrative created by the various types of writing juxtaposed one above the other (David’s dedication on the writing table/tombstone, Marat’s letter and assignat, and Corday’s perfidious letter at the top of this hierarchy), and the knife used to murder Marat lying adjacent to the pen still held in the victim’s hand.

In Vaughan and Weston’s book many new perspectives and contexts are brought to bear that were not found in the literature previously. Vaughan and Weston provide a cogent and informative introduction to The Death of Marat which succinctly recounts the history of Marat’s death and funeral, the role of the main protagonists, and offers a description of the painting along with the circumstances of its creation and an overview of its reception and fortunes. Each editor also contributes an outstanding and important essay. Vaughan examines the composition as both historical document and history painting, emphasizing that David was following the common practice of history painters of the time by altering events in order to commemorate more cogently their significance. In so doing, he places the painting in broader aesthetic and theoretical contexts such as the goals and ideals of history painting in France and the prescribed role of the history painter within the Academy. Vaughan studies the pictorial rhetoric of the painting and seeks to define the new hybrid genre of portrait-as-history that David has created, and that combines the heroic exemplum virtutis with the pietà (the influence of Christian iconography as well the images of the antique conclamatio have been much studied). He stresses the importance of attending closely to the visual language of the painting, its specific features as well as its “pared-down” Spartan style as a primary mode of understanding meaning. He reviews David’s educational and aesthetic experiences in Italy in the 1770s, especially Rome and suggests that, in addition to neoclassicism, David encountered the theory and practice of the sublime in Rome, possibly through contact with Sergel, the Swedish sculptor, and the Swiss painter Fuseli. Placing the Marat in the context of the pictorial language of the sublime as well as that of classicism opens up new avenues for inquiry in David studies.

Weston’s essay is equally important and thought provoking. She re-examines Corday’s metonymic inclusion in the painting through the letter held in Marat’s left hand as well as the bloodied knife that lies adjacent to his right hand that still holds his pen. Weston argues that David, through a subtle manipulation of pictorial signs, sought to discredit Corday and diminish her significance as sole perpetrator of the crime, a role that she worked actively to promote from her prison cell. Weston contrasts David’s composition with engravings inspired by it that do include the murderess at a moment just before or after the crime. These juxtapositions demonstrate the subtlety of David’s use of Corday’s perfidious letter adjacent to Marat’s “sincere” request to help a poor widow and her family. The letters, which stand in dramatic contradistinction in intent and tone, provide the narrative background for the significant moment. Weston focuses attention on the role and function of letter writing and its ramifications, contrasting Corday’s “royalist” writing and penmanship style with that of the “republican” Marat. This is a fascinating context in which to re-examine Corday and her role in the history of the Revolution with that of Marat. The context of the theme of letters in the 18th century and representations of reading and writing opens up exciting new avenues for further exploration.

Tony Halliday had the particularly fructive idea of examining the painting in the context of private commemorative portraits of the recently deceased. He relates the image in particular to the private posthumous portrait and proposes that many portraits from the 16th-18th centuries, hitherto presumed to depict living individuals, actually are commemorative and depict the recently deceased. Related to developments in funerary practice and private mourning, Halliday contends that the posthumous portrait emerged as an important genre in 18th-century French art and that in the Marat David responded to a new pictorial language that revealed a private rather than public identity, and sought to move the spectator to emotions of bereavement and loss. In addition to the private effigy, Halliday places the Marat in the context of its public or political functions and meanings relating the work to Roman Republican funeral effigies well-known through historical descriptions as well as to 18th-century wax effigies of the recently deceased, including waxworks exhibitions of political figures such as those by Philippe Curtius, uncle of Madame Tussaud (who made a wax effigy of Marat that also figures into the discussion). The death masks and subsequent busts of Marat were a significant part of this effigy culture. Halliday’s research reveals the richness and breadth of the field of 18th-century portraiture.

In his essay, Tom Gretton re-examines the historical context of the period of Marat’s murder, including David’s role as a Jacobin politician/painter, Marat as l’ami du peuple, the emerging role of the “People” vis-à-vis Jacobin control and the confluence of David-Marat in the summer of 1793 with its clashing factions and political discourses. Gretton signals David’s dilemma in creating a successful composition of Marat as revolutionary martyr because Corday answered in an unexpected way Marat’s call to action, her murderous assault embodying the values promulgated by her victim—"the exaltation of political violence, the personalization of political conflict, and the fascination with political conspiracy." (51) The relationship between discourse and violence expressed in David’s painting is underscored by Gretton as a key to understanding the period of the Terror.

One rarely learns about how a painting is made in terms of methods and materials and this is the subject of Libby Sheldon’s informative essay. Her study reveals David as a master craftsman, well-schooled in the techniques of making a painting from the preparation of the canvas to the actual mixing and application of paints. Sheldon interprets the results of infrared reflectography of the painting. This process revealed David’s underdrawing of the Marat and presented a wealth of new information about the artist’s procedures in preparation and use of the canvas as well as changes he made from the original underdrawing to the final painting. The subtle changes from drawing to painting demonstrate David’s attention and care to the smallest of details. One telling example is the packing case, made of knotted wood that serves Marat as a writing table. Infrared reflectography revealed that the position of the box, drawn with a ruler rather than freehand, was subtly adjusted during the drawing stage, as were specific details. Sheldon analyzes the underdrawing itself, most likely made with a black chalk drawing tool, and follows the adjustments David made as he drew in the outlines of Marat. These discoveries are particularly fascinating in terms of the changes made in the details of the hand and face, and how they transformed the expression of the final painting. Sheldon describes her discoveries about the subsequent stages of the painting, also revealed through the infrared relectography process, such as the colored sketch, a form of rough underpainting that David used in creating the flesh tones of the figure and left in its entirety to serve as the background. She concludes with a technical discussion of the use and application of paints, the mixing of colors, and the types of brushes employed. This technical study of the painting gives us a clear picture of David at work on the canvas and we can follow the choices he made at each stage that resulted in the final painting.

In the concluding essay of the book, David Lomas looks at works inspired by David’s painting and the historical event of Marat’s murder by Corday. Using Freudian theory he analyzes what he characterizes as the “phantasies” of Munch in such works as Death of Marat I (1907) and Marat and Charlotte Corday (1932-5). Similarly, he uses Freudian analysis to address Picasso’s depictions of male sacrifice or murder by women, including, among others, Woman with a Stiletto, Death of Marat (1931), Composition (Death of Marat) (1934) and Blind Minotaur with Death of Marat (1934). He relates Picasso’s works of the early 1930s to the revival in Paris of the cult of Marat by the Left who invoked the French Revolution to further their cause and considered Marat to be a prophet of modern socialism. The use of David’s Marat as a political icon in the 1930s is a fascinating episode in the fortunes of the painting that had become linked so intimately with its subject. The essays in the book make recent scholarship and new interpretations accessible to a broad range of informed readers. The fruitful results of the authors’ focus on one inexhaustible painting demonstrate the value to be gained from such a concentration. The book is a very welcome addition to David studies.

Dorothy Johnson
Roy J. Carver Professor of Art History, School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa