Political Painting, Modern Life, ands the Birth of Modern Art
Associate Professor of Art History
New London, CT 06320
(This essay was written in 1990 and has been revised a few times since then. It is indebted to the teaching of T. J. Clark in
whose courses I served as a teaching assistant. His ideas on David have recently been published in his book, Farewell to an
Idea, 1999. I also draw on an article by Erica Rand published in 1990. See note 3 below.)
When the French Revolution broke out four years after the Horatii, life seemed to imitate and eclipse art.
Bitter and bloody political struggles fostered uncompromising positions and fanatical allegiances to
higher goals. In hindsight, David’s Oath of the Horatii seemed strangely prophetic of the most repressive
period of the Revolution - the Terror (1793-94) - when an extremist revolutionary party, the Jacobins,
seized power and executed thousands of people across France, especially moderate revolutionaries like
the Girondins. These extremists soon fell victim to the same violence they unleashed when most of them
were arrested and executed in late 1794. During the Terror, it was a capital offense to display family
loyalty for those identified as enemies of the state. Extremism and paranoia triumphed so that moderates
were singled out for some of the worst persecution.
From the start, David allied himself with the Jacobins and became a self-appointed propaganda painter for
the revolution. He also became the chief designer of the mass rallies and revolutionary festivals now
needed to sway the citizens of the new French republic. David even a member of a secret police
commission, signing death warrants for anyone deemed an enemy of the People.
Here we can see how the French Revolution and the call for ordinary citizens to participate in the new
republic gave artists, writers, and other ordinary people a new freedom to participate in the public sphere
and shape ongoing discussions and disputes. This public sphere emerged from earlier eighteenth-century
institutions and spaces like the Salon where artists were able to speak directly to the public. Prior to that,
artists worked for the church or for private patrons, especially rulers and nobles. In short, the French
Revolution opened the door much wider for the assertion of individual voices and for the creation of a
more individualized human identity in modern art and literature.
David, Death of Marat, 1793
Background on Marat
While this course will not test you on all these details, you must know the basic historical background on
Marat to understand David’s painting. Born in 1743 in French-speaking Switzerland, Marat was a self-
taught intellectual and amateur physician. He spent a decade in England (1765-1776) publishing essays on
medical, political, and philosophical topics. After moving to Paris in 1776, he focused on scientific
research and on judicial reform until the sweeping developments of the approaching French Revolution
swept him up in 1788. From then on, Marat pursued the case of radical revolution, attacking both royalists
and moderates and making many enemies even in the new National Convention which he joined as an
elected Deputy. He also started his own newspaper called L’Ami du Peuple (Friend of the People) which
he used to denounce the many perceived traitors in and outside France. In a pamphlet of July, 1790
entitled “We’re done for”, he called for the execution of hundreds of enemies of France.
Five or six hundred heads would have guaranteed your freedom and happiness but a false humanity has
restrained your arms and stopped your blows. If you don’t strike now, millions of your brothers will die,
your enemies will triumph and your blood will flood the streets. They'll slit your throats without mercy
and disembowel your wives. And their bloody hands will rip out your children’s entrails to erase your
love of liberty forever. 1
After the execution of Louis XVI in January, 1793, Marat stepped up his attacks on moderate
revolutionaries, especially the Girondin party which he accused of betraying the revolution. Rallying
support among Marat’s many enemies in the National Convention, the Girondins brought Marat to trial in
the Revolutionary Tribunal, only to see him acquitted in April. Greatly empowered for the moment, Marat
joined forces with radical parties and their leaders to oust the Girondin party from the National
Convention on June 2, 1793. Interestingly, Marat’s power declined significantly in the weeks which
followed because the most powerful radical party – the Jacobins headed by Robespierre - no longer
needed him as a demagogue and attack dog.
The purge of the Girondins brought civil war to large parts of France as royalists and revolutionary
moderates rose up to resist the growing authority of an increasingly radical and dictatorial French
revolutionary government. The growing threat enabled the radicals controlling the national government in
Paris to concentrate power further by getting the Convention to cede all judicial authority to a relatively
new Committee of Public Safety. Under the leadership of Robespierre, its nine members expelled all
moderates and began a year-long period of violent persecution known as the Terror. It was the uprising
after the purge of the Girondins which allowed Robespierre’s committee to set up a guillotine in one of
Paris’ largest squares, now known as the Place de la Concorde. Under the eye of the general public,
Robiepierre fed a growing stream of Girondins, royalists, moderates, and other “traitors” into the jaws of
the guillotine. The first of the major show trials and executions at the Place de la Concorde was that of
Charlotte Corday, a Girondin citizen arrested and quickly condemned for the murder of Marat as he lay
soaking in a medical bath.
Corday originally planed to assassinate Marat on the floor of the Convention with the kind of public,
theatrical action favored by French revolutionaries. When Marat's skin condition flared up, confining him
to medical baths at home, Corday made new plans to kill him privately. To gain his confidence, she sent
him a letter posing as a radical and the widow of a man killed in the revolution who had uncovered a
Girondin plot. The second letter which she brought with her (dated 13 July, 1793) stated:
"I have secrets to reveal that are most important to the health of the Republic. I have already been
persecuted for the cause of liberty. I am miserable; it is enough that I am so to have the right to
As Marat received her, supposedly commenting, "They shall soon be guillotined", Corday stabbed him
fatally in the chest. Though she hoped to destroy Revolutionary extremism with this action, she
unwittingly set the stage for the radicals to assume complete and total power in Paris for the next year, a
power they used to arrest and execute anyone deemed an enemy of the state. If parts of France were
already plunged into civil war at the time of Marat’s death, his killing increased the climate of violence
and extremism. Led by Robespierre, the Jacobins used Marat’s death to prove the mortal threat from
within faced by the Revolution and the critical need to purge all suspected enemies. In the weeks which
followed, the Committee on Public Safety ordered the arrest of thousands of Girondins, royalists, and
other suspected enemies. The biggest names were subjected to a show trials followed by even more public
executions by guillotine in the Place de la Concorde (then known as the Place de la Revolution). The first
big show trial was given to Corday, who quickly guillotined on July 17, 1793. For the next year, Paris was
gripped by trials and public executions with 30-60 people guillotined each day. It took a full year before
the self-destructive madness of Jacobin extremism burned itself out with a final orgy of violence on July
27 and 28 when all the leading Jacobins were executed and immediately guillotined. David himself was
arrested but spared, as indicated below.
The ’Death of Marat’ and the Problems of Modern Politics as an Artistic Subject
With the Death of Marat, David broke with the history painting he had revitalized more than anyone else.
Although he continued to paint important history paintings, David turned his attentions toward modern
politics in two cultural arenas: painting and public festivals which he organized and staged in Paris.
In some important ways, this painting marks a major turning point in Western art since the Renaissance.
In it, David became the first artist to declare a radically new, individual mission for the artist: to find and
represent great truths out of modern life. Ancient myth, Christian narratives, middle class or aristocratic
family images, and even ancient political history would henceforth appear increasingly unworkable as a
coherent language adequate to express the great issues and dramas of modern life. Truth for artists and
writers would increasingly be located in modern life where they could only be discovered and presented,
as the Marat implies, by a bold act of individual artistic vision.
So too, the artist would increasingly be working directly for a public, in the new public spaces of national
exhibitions like the Salon and new museum spaces like the Louvre, seized from the monarchy by the
revolutionary government and converted from a royal palace to a national art museum in the early
nineteenth century. Other public spaces were added in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as
world fairs and expositions and art galleries, while the art museum itself expanded to become the great,
single-most important public space for the display, interpretation, and reception of all art by the mid-
It was David who found significant political meaning in the death of a contemporary revolutionary. It was
David who came up with the idea for a large painting of Marat which he had hung in the revolutionary
assembly hall. Placed in the highest national and revolutionary arena, David hoped to make Marat into a
national martyr and hero of the revolution, a figure like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln as
commemorated in our national monuments much later. The erection of a large painting in the Hall of
Deputies would also help cement the recent triumph of the Jacobins over the Girondins.
Needless to say, any national icon commemorating Marat faced enormous problems. For the painting
appeared in a nation divided into multiple factions with each side mounting a propaganda war to
capitalize on Marat’s assassination. For the extreme left (Jacobins), Marat became a martyr, his bust
placed in the Convention, his ashes buried in the Pantheon. Streets, squares, and no less than thirty-seven
French towns were immediately renamed after him. Poems and hymns were composed in his honor, and
school children were told to make the sign of the cross when hearing his name. One poem even compared
him extensively to Jesus.
Like Jesus, Marat loved ardently the people, and only them. Like Jesus, Marat hated kings, nobles,
priests, rogues and, like Jesus, he never stopped fighting against these plagues of the people. 2
At the same time, no revolutionary leader was more despised in France in the summer and fall of 1793
than Jean-Paul Marat. The royalists in and outside France working to restore the monarchy hated him as a
revolutionary. Moderate revolutionaries such as the Girondins hated him for his extremism and
demagoguery. For different reasons and in different ways, these groups celebrated Marat's death in
pamphlets and prints published safely, outside France. One English print hailed Corday as a second Joan
of Arc delivering France from its enemies.
For the Jacobin painter, David, the problem was to stabilize the meaning of Marat's death, to reveal the
"truth" of Marat once and for all as the heroic martyr to the revolution. Here David used his somewhat
Caravaggesque style of incisive, stark realism set against a simple, timeless background with strong
lighting. He carefully avoided the overtly propagandistic, sensationalism of blood and gore, choosing
instead the more truthful seeming language of understatement. Thus David transformed an unheroic death
into something grand, timeless, and tragically evocative of a Pieta. Above all else, his painting offered
itself as a "true" account, "true" because here were the plain, stark, seemingly unmanipulated "facts" as
simply and insistently presented as the trompe-l'oeil still-life of Marat's writing table.
To stabilize the meaning of the painting and of Marat's death further, David orchestrated a highly staged
public unveiling of the Marat in the courtyard of the royal palace in Paris (the Louvre) on the very day
Queen Marie Antoinette was guillotined. In this way, the martyrdom of Marat helped celebrate and
legitimize the execution of the queen. The apparent victory of counter-revolutionary forces over a
revolutionary leader was reversed and transformed into the revolution's larger triumph over its most
symbolically important enemy, the monarchy.
Confirming the "truth" of the painting was the presence of the real corpse still in its bathtub, the hand
dangling over holding a pen just as David painted it. Since Marat's real arm had frozen in rigor mortis, the
arm of another corpse was used and the bathtub raised on a pedestal to hide the deception and to heroicize
Marat further above the common citizen.
L'an Deux and the French Revolutionary Calendar
David signed the Death of Marat at the bottom with words arranged in three levels, using differently sized
letters to elevate the importance of Marat while underscoring his own political accomplishment as an
By dating his work "L'an deux" (The Year Two), David used the new French Revolutionary Calendar
which began on Sept 22, 1792, the autumnal equinox and the day after the proclamation of the French
republic. This new calendar was instituted by Revolutionary decree on Oct 5, 1793, just before David
finished the painting. The new calendar removed time from Christianity, started it anew from zero, and
gave it a secular, mathematical order. The year was divided into twelve equal months of thirty days with
five political feast days, no weeks, and a rest day every tenth day.
In its attempt to restart history, culture, politics, and morality all over again, to radically sever the present
and the future from the past, and to create a rational, secular world from scratch, the French Revolutionary
calendar showed an extreme version of Enlightenment utopian ideals of secular reform and progress.
David was immediately drawn to the new calendar not just because he was a political radical but also
because he was a radical painter. And no painting produced in the West thus far was more radical than the
Death of Marat. In it, David stepped outside traditional institutions and subject matters and spoke directly
to the People as a free individual, a citizen-painter eager to made modern politics into the highest subject
of art. "L'an deux" boldly announces a brave new world of art-making, completely severed from the past,
a work made independently by one citizen – David - in homage to the memory of another independent
voice - Marat.
The Appeal of Modern Politics as the New History Painting
For some forty years (1789-1830), many of the greatest artists in Europe and America (David, Goya,
Gericault, Delacroix, Copley) made contemporary political events the subject of large, grand
compositions with many of the aesthetic qualities of traditional history paintings except their ideal
subjects. The appeal of modern politics depended on a number of factors. For one, politics offered the
most ambitious artists an irresistible seriousness and an urgency and immediacy not found in the new,
political subjects from classical antiquity which David had reintroduced in the 1780s (Oath of the Horatii,
Death of Socrates, etc.). As contemporary dramas of the highest magnitude, modern politics also held out
the promise of a greater universality than that claimed by traditional history painting which sometimes
took obscure subjects known only to educated elites and indulged in recondite allegories. Third, modern
politics allowed the artist to stride boldly into the public arena him or herself and to go beyond recording
events by shaping public opinion as contemporary events unfolded. With political art, the ambitious artist
could dream of changing the world instead of just representing it. David’s Marat is a case in point as a
major piece of Jacobin propaganda hung in the National Convention hall at a time when the Jacobins tried
to use Marat’s death to rally France to their cause. Political art allowed artists to become important
political actors and public voices. They could even dream of creating national icons in the emerging
secular political culture of modern nationalism. By portraying Marat as a Christ-like martyr, David was
eager to fashion a national icon for all of France down through the ages.
The Problems of Modern Politics as the New History Painting
For reasons explored below (and later), contemporary politics was problematic from the start as an artistic
subject and eventually disappeared as a major, ongoing artistic category after 1830. It reappeared as a
major category only in the 1980s. In general, artists who grappled with political subjects between 1789
and 1830 tended in their later years to retreat into safer, more stable vocabularies, generally more
imaginary, private, or escapist. If we look at the nineteenth century as a whole, we shall see this pattern in
the eventual shift, after 1880, to an increasingly self-reflective abstraction. At least four problems helped
make such political painting short-lived as the primary vocabulary of great art, all of them clear with
David (and in different ways, with Goya, Gericault, and Delacroix).
First, politically committed artists risked imprisonment, exile, and death, their works, suppression or
destruction. With the collapse of the Jacobins and the guillotining of all important Jacobin leaders, David
was arrested and sentenced to death. (He escaped with his life only through important personal
connections.) With Napoleon's later rise, he again became prominent as a political painter but when the
dictator eventually fell, the painter was again arrested and this time exiled to Brussels. With its
considerable personal risks, political painting was not the most feasible path for modern artists to follow.
Second, today's political headlines could easily become tomorrow's forgotten stories, thereby
undermining the artist's hope that politics might offer enduring, universal vocabularies. Most of the small
number of people who have heard of Marat today probably know him from David's painting than for the
actions which made him infamous in his day.
Third, political art had no visual tradition on which artists could draw. One had to work much more from
scratch in choosing the most important moments and inventing a composition with aesthetically powerful
forms and groupings, gestures, settings, lighting, color, and so forth. Without the guidelines of a visual
tradition to use and revise, without audience expectations to satisfy or challenge, political subjects were
much more likely to lead to mediocre art. The solution, adopted by every painter of politics at this time,
was to borrow quietly from the traditional language of history painting to give political events an
appropriate heroic quality, visual grandeur, and "timelessness". Despite the radically mundane, factual
naturalism of David's Marat with its trompe l'oeil fiction of journalistic truth, David composed Marat in
the posture of the dead Christ from Michelangelo's well-known Pieta to transform the decidedly non-
heroic death of a murderous fanatic in an eczema bath into something more tragic and timeless (especially
with the carefully neutral setting). In this way, David tried to make an assassination into a secular
Fourth, political subjects were likely to be too controversial to offer stable meanings shared by wide
audiences. Often initiated by artists themselves, political paintings were works of art in search of a
common audience and often finding a hostile one. David's Marat, for example remained as controversial
as the dead man himself. In this sense, it was just one image in a sea of contentious images and
discussions surrounding the man and his death. By leaping into the controversy of politics, modern artists
also risked having the aesthetic qualities of their works completely overlooked as viewers responded
passionately, pro and con, to the political subject. Here, political art risked being overlooked entirely as
No one knew all of this better than the elderly David, exiled to Brussels after the fall of Napoleon. There
he turned to traditional artistic forms which were completely safe: portraits and erotic, heterosexual,
Sexual Politics in David's Marat
Until recently, the politics of the David's art was discussed solely in terms of left vs. right, of conflicts
between monarchists, moderates, and extremists. This completely ignored the impact of women in the
French Revolution and the sexual politics of David's art which transcended notions of left, middle, and
right. Thus historians missed the way David's Marat reinterpreted the event to defuse the threat of female
activists assuming an important role in the Revolution.
In the confusion and disorder of the first two years of the Revolution, women capitalized on the power
vacuum by assuming a new importance, by forming new women's clubs, marching as groups, and
pressing for improvements in their conditions as women. By the time of Marat's death, the male deputies
to the Revolutionary Convention had succeeded in outlawing almost all female participation in
revolutionary activities, all women's clubs and organizations, and even all public gatherings of more than
five women. The proper "revolutionary" sphere for women was redefined in strictly domestic terms as
mothers of (male) heroes and citizens and as loyal wives and widows. By banishing women to the home,
the Revolutionary Convention worked to remove them from active involvement in policy making and
street action, to prevent them from mobilizing as groups. Confined to the home, women could remain
isolated and divided individuals further hampered by the local paternal control of citizen-fathers and
husbands. In short, the very male revolutionaries who were the most eager to restructure society along
radical lines were also eager to perpetuate traditional gender relations, especially since all of them had an
immediate stake in preserving such relations in their own homes and in the larger political arena.
Interestingly,. women were primarily extolled in Revolutionary art after 1792 in the safe, depoliticized
form of personifications such as Liberty, France, or Nature. How did David's Marat work to defuse and
contain Corday's activism and to rewrite political history? 3
First, David rewrote the letter Corday brought with her dated 13 July, 1793. Behind the artistic mask of
documentary truth conveyed through a incisive, trompe l'oeil verisimilitude, David altered Corday's letter
and the meaning of her action by eliminating the whole first half referring to her political ruse. He left
only that section invoking her (feminine) weakness and misery and need for his (male) protection: Thus
David's version reads, "It is enough that I am truly miserable to have the right to your good will".
To reinterpret Corday's action further and prove the truth to Marat's revolutionary nickname as "friend of
the people", David fabricated a bill and a note from Marat on the table which reads, "You will give this
bill to this mother with five children whose husband has died defending the country". (This note also
suggests Marat was a patriotic martyr.) David's second, fabricated note implicitly rebuked Corday's direct
political involvement by hailing the ideal woman as a wife and mother dependent on men (first her
husband, now Marat). Since this feminine dependency overlaps exactly with the rhetoric of Corday's letter
which David chose to include, Marat's fictitious note works to comment directly on the false, monstrous
"femininity" of Corday. It suggests she used "feminine" virtue and domestic dependency only as a ploy to
manipulate benevolent, virtuous heroes like Marat. In short, Marat's fictitious letter works to distinguish
between a true and false femininity and attributes the latter to Corday. To the extent that Corday still
appears as a political actor, she appears as a woman who has lost her true femininity.
The converse is also true whereby the woman remains but the political agent disappears. By picturing
Corday only in the traditional role of a helpless, dependent woman (however false the rhetoric), David's
Marat also works to remove Charlotte Corday, woman, from the realm of political action and thinking.
She is reduced to the less discomforting stereotype of a "deceptive woman" rather than the revolutionary
activist she was. Thus David's painting represents a political sphere focused almost entirely on Marat.
Gone is any sense of the larger political clash between extremist Montagnards (Marat's party) and
moderate Girondins. Most importantly, David all avoids seeing the event as a struggle between Marat and
Corday, a political event in which a woman emerged as a citizen and played a decisive role in political
In numerous representations and discussions, Corday was usually seen either as a political actor without
femininity (a monster spewed forth from time to time by nature as noted by the deputy Chabot) - or as a
woman without political agency (as in her prosecutors' insistence she was the female puppet of a secret
group of men.). The latter view also informed one print which showed her all dressed up in the latest
fashions with a slim waist and enticing decolletage. It was all but impossible for the dominant culture to
unite the two - woman and political actor - in Corday. Indeed, most contemporaries worked hard to split
the two and restore a reassuring gender politics of male/female, public/private. In this way, politicians and
artists worked to make Corday's highly public example support and reinforce rather than undermine
patriarchal norms. One official Parisian printed account even commented on Corday:
"Sentimental love and its soft emotions no longer approach the heart of a woman who has the
pretension to knowledge, to wit, and to free thought, to the politics of the nation. ... Sensible and
amiable men do not like women of this type."
David's painting both removed and defeminized the female political actor. Thus it accomplished both of
the prevailing strategies for reinterpreting the assassination. And it worked to renew patriarchy in the
midst of revolution and considerable social transformation.
Taken from the Wikipedia article, and ultimately from
My discussion here draws heavily on Erica Rand’s insightful article, "Depoliticizing Women: Female Agency, the French
Revolution and the Art of Boucher and David," Genders, 7, Spring 1990, 47-68. I have not seen Marie-Hélène Huet,
Rehearsing the Revolution: The Staging of Marat's Death, 1793-1797, trans. Robert Hurley, Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982.