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Jacques Louis David 1787 painting The Death of Socrates is a masterful imagined reproduction of the forced suicide of the pre-eminent philosopher. Winning his way to study in Italy, the young David studied the Italian masterworks of the High Renaissance, the ruined splendour of Rome, and the ancient streets of Pompeii. Filling sketchbooks with material that he would return to throughout his life and career, David soon became an extraordinary Neoclassicist, casting aside the flourishes of the Rococo style in favour of austere, contemplative portraits. Seeking to turn the art world upside with the eternal morals of the classical world, David, although flourishing under the aristocratic French monarchy, was a fervent support of the French Revolution that would occur just two years after The Death of Socrates. Created at the height of his early popularity, alongside a group of likeminded friends, David’s monumental work depicts the final actions and gestures of the great philosopher Socrates, whose dialogues form the basis of Western classical thought.
David’s imagined reproduction of the scene follows closely his calls for greater public discussion, as Socrates himself was condemned to death or exile by the Athenian government for opening preaching his methods in the public sphere. Rejecting a life of banishment, the philosopher chose to drink of a cup of poison surrounded by his friends and associates. David chooses to juxtapose the rigid certainty of the central protagonist with the shock and horror of those that surround him, transforming a simple tragic scene into a political gesture of refusal and disobedience. Continuing to enthuse and preach as he reaches for the fatal cup, Socrates is a symbol for the great number of political prisoners that, in 1787, were languishing in barbaric prisons of which the soon-to-be notorious Bastille was one. Yet, a short time after this was painted David himself was part of a committee who voted upon the execution of King Louis XVI. An ordinary man of conviction in truly extraordinary times.