At our last Monday Night Life Drawing Group, Richard wanted to do a Death of Marat pose. We didn’t have a bathtub, which would have been handy. On the other hand, a bathtub would have enveloped most of the figure, as it does in David’s painting, so we compromised by laying him out on a bier of pillows and sheets. Richard called it “Marat’s Autopsy.” That’s a bit grisly. I’m calling it a postmortem examination.
I have always loved the painting by Jacques-Louis David. It is a fine piece of theater painted in the aftermath of Marat’s murder to ennoble the political cause the man and the artist both served. However, for years I didn’t know who Jean-Paul Marat was, how he died, or anything about the life of David, the painter; I just recognized his technical skill. Well, now that I know more about him, one could call this great work of art a piece of propaganda. I still love it as a very effective composition, but I’m not in any way impressed by David’s politics.
Death of Marat by Jaques-Louis David
David stuck with the Jacobin Club through their bloodiest excesses. He himself voted for the execution of Louis XIV. Perhaps he honestly believed the fantastical accusations against the King and Queen. His artistic patronage of Republicanism, however, ran afoul as factionalism that broke it apart. His Oath of the Tennis Court was never finished:
The Oath of the Tennis Court (drawing above) was supposed to portray the same Roman Republican virtues he believed in when he painted the Oath of the Horatii (below), the unity of men united in the service of a patriotic ideal. This pivotal event took place in 1789.
The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David
By 1792, the unity had shattered. He painted the Death of Marat in 1793 at a point where art could make only a personal political statement. Former friends were now bitter enemies. Marat was murdered in his bath, in which he soaked for hours daily due to a a skin condition from which he suffered, in vengeance for executions of Girondists (see below) by a young woman named Charlotte Corday. (He was covered in a blistering rash associated with Coeliac’s disease, brought on an intolerance of glutin.)
Charlotte Corday by Paul-Jaques-Aime Baudry
I don’t get all my history from novels — really! — but will cite Michelle Moran’s novel, Madame Tussaud, a blow-by-blow account of the French Revolution, for my first knowledge about Charlotte Corday. During the reign of terror, a lone woman struck a blow in vengeance for all those murdered by the Montagnards — Robespierre, Danton and Marat– a radical (bloodthirsty, fanatic) segment of the Jacobins. She was a Girondin, a more moderate revolutionary. The Girondins were arrested and beheaded by the Montagnards during the Reign of Terror.
The historical event of Marat’s murder and his assassin’s execution is so distorted by the factionalism of French history, that it may be impossible to get a true picture of Charlotte Corday.
On the plus side, Thomas Carlyle (an English critic of the Revolution) wrote of her in his French Revolution:
She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was … A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries!–Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.
On the negative side:
“Not at all pretty,” a contemporaneous government article put about. “She was a virago, brawny rather than fresh, without grace, untidy as are almost all female philosophers and eggheads … an old maid … with a masculinized bearing … [who] had thrown herself absolutely outside of her sex.”
I prefer the former, of course, as the French Revolution appalls me, besides which, I don’t think female philosophers and eggheads need be any more masculine than their fluffy counterparts.
Beauteous or otherwise, Corday was certainly brave. In Charlotte’s own words:
“I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely, as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.”
She went to her execution with a smile on her face and unflagging dignity.
As an aside, another portrayal of female chutzpa and death, I found this painting of Zenobia, the ruler of Palmyra and defier of Roman hegemony, by the same artist, Paul Baudry.
Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araks River by Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry
The same scene as depicted by William Bouguereau