David's Death of Marat is one of the most iconic pictures in Western art, but there is much uncertainty surrounding its conception. Some of the pieces of the puzzle have only come to light very recently and are still the subject of unresolved speculation. What follows summarises some of the available evidence:
The history of a masterpiece
The officially recorded facts are easily told:
On 14th July 1793, the day after Marat's assassination, the deputy Guirault, speaking in the Convention, invited David, in suitably dramatic tones, to create a portrait of Marat as a pendant to his painting of the martyred Le Pelletier de Saint-Fargeau :
Where are you David? You have transmitted to posterity the image of Lepelletier dying for the fatherland : there is one more picture left for you to create.
David: Indeed I will create it.
[Où es-tu David ? tu as transmis à la postérité l'image de Lepelletier mourant pour la patrie; il te reste encore un tableau à faire.
David : Aussi le ferai-je. ]
Three months later to the day, on 14th October 1793, David announced the completion of his painting and asked for permission to remove the Lepelletier temporarily from the Convention. On 16th October, the morning of Marie-Antoinette's execution, the canvasses were exhibited in the courtyard of the Louvre as the centrepieces of a ceremony organised by the Section du Muséum in honour of the "two martyrs of liberty". They were then placed on display to the public in David's workshop. On 14th November, in a long and emotional oration, which was later printed, David formally presented his painting to the Convention and called for Marat to be voted the honours of the Pantheon. He proclaimed that he had taken up his brush to "avenge our friend, avenge Marat" and to ensure that his "livid and bloody features" would recall his virtues to posterity.
[See Anita Brookner, Jacques-Louis David (1980) p.115: ..the simplicity of the image contrasts with the elaborate and sentimental words with which David presented the portrait to the National Convention. This extremely larmoyant speech is reminiscent of the most melodramatic of eighteenth-century tirades, and really requires the talents of a great actor to give it its full weight. It is almost too painful to imagine in David's stumbling delivery.]
The Assembly asked for the two paintings to be hung in the Salle des Séances on either side of the presidential chair (which David himself eventually occupied briefly in January 1794): the Lepelletier on the left next to a tablet with the Constitution of 1793; the Marat on the right next to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
On 8th February 1795 the picture was taken down from walls of the Convention and returned to David. During his exile it remained hidden in France in the safekeeping of Antoine Gros. On David's death it was included in the inventory of his possessions, dated 3rd March 1826, but not sold. In the second sale of David's effects (1st March 1835) it was bought jointly for 4500 fr by his daughter the Baroness Meunier and the widow of his son Eugène David. In 1886 it was presented to Belgium by the artist's grandson Jules David and now hangs in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.
There are four known official copies of the painting made by David's workshop. The two now in the Louvre and at Versailles were in David's studio along with the original at the time of his death. The Versailles version is of particularly high quality. The two are often identified as replicas made for transfer to tapestry as requested by workers at the Gobelins factory in May 1794.
All four are reproduced in the French Wikipedia article Mort de Marat https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Mort_de_Marat.
Some evidence for the genesis of David's composition is provided by his arrangements for the public display of Marat's body in the church of the Cordeliers . In the session of the 15th July on the proposition of Chabot, the members of the Convention decreed that they would attend Marat's funeral as a body. David, Maure and Bentabolle were officially named as commissaires for the exposition and funeral.
By chance, David had been one of the last people to see Marat. On the 12th July he had been one of a delegation sent by the Jacobin Club to Marat's lodgings in the rue des Cordeliers to inquire after his health. Maure later reported: "We found him in the bath: a table, an inkwell, newspapers all around him, occupying himself ceaselessly in the public cause." (Journal des Débats des Jacobins, 16 juillet 1793).
David himself announced his intention to display the body in this pose:
I found him in a striking position. He had by him a block of wood, on which he had placed paper and ink, and with his right hand out of the bath, he was writing his latest thoughts for the safety of the People. Yesterday the surgeon who had embalmed the body asked how we intended to display it to the people in the church of the Cordeliers..... I thought that it would be interesting to show him in the attitude that I found him, writing for the happiness of the People. (Session of 15 July).
On the 16th, however, he reported that he and his colleagues had visited the Théâtre-Français Section and come to the conclusion that the rapid decomposition of Marat's body made this plan impracticable. The funeral was brought forward to that evening and the corpse simply displayed on a dais under a wet sheet, with various props - the bath, bloody shirt and inkstand - to the side.
|Attributed to Fougeat, Funeral of Marat, oil. 59cm x 73cm.|
They took a porphyry bath from the rooms of the Louvre, covered it with a tricolour flag and placed inside the body of Marat; he was visible under the material which was lifted to one side like a curtain. His right arm emerged with the hand holding a steel pen. People made the pilgrimage to kiss the dead hand and the allegorical pen which they believed belonged to the Ami du peuple. As a result some sort of dislocation occurred: the whole apparatus of arm and wires fell apart, and it could clearly be seen that the limb had come from a completely different corpse and did not belong to Marat at all. The journals of Paris did not dare to say anything. Souvenirs de la Marquise de Créquy, vol.8. p.122-3, quoted in Charlotte Corday et la mort de Marat, documents inedits (1909).
David's drawing of the head of Marat
|David, Head of Marat. Ink drawing on white paper pasted|
onto a brown background. 27cm x 21 cm. Versailles Collections.
This highly finished drawing was in David's studio at the time of his death and was included in the sale of 17th April 1826. It formerly belonged to Jules David, the grand-nephew of the painter and was given to Versailles in 1893. The assumption is that it represents an early stage in David's composition process. According to the catalogue for the Royal Academy "Citizens and Kings" exhibition, it was probably painted the day after Marat's funeral; like the finished picture, it emphasises Marat's almond-shaped eyes and swollen eyelids.
The drawing was the subject of a widely-distributed engraving by Jacques-Louis Copia, "Marat as he was at the moment of his death". announced in the Journal de Paris, 24 ventôse an II (14th March 1794): "Portrait of J.P. Marat, l'Ami du Peuple, drawn from nature by David and engraved by Copola".
|Anonymous plaster death mask of Marat, Musée Carnavalet|
The image closely resembles existent death masks of Marat. For David's possession of such a mask, we have only the intriguing footnote from Delécluze's Souvenirs which states that David had a death mask made "for his picture", that it was copied in plaster and sold "with the mask of Robespierre and others". In 1835 the police forbade public exhibition of these pieces.
[Après la mort de Marat, David fit mouler son masque pour l’exécution de son tableau. C’est ce masque qui a été surmoulé en plâtre et vendu avec celui de Robespierre et quelques autres. En 1835, la police fit défendre qu’ils fussent exposés publiquement. ]
Etienne-Jean Delécluze, Louis David,son école et son temps: souvenirs (1855), p.154 nt http://archive.org/stream/louisdavidsonco00dlgoog#page/n175/mode/2up
The claim is widely accepted that Curtius or Madame Tussaud made the mould for David.
Forensic evidence from the Brussels painting
According to an article in the États du lieu blog, an radiographic analysis of the Brussels painting was undertake at the end of the 1990s which showed that David modified his work in the course of execution. He firmed up Marat's face in order to make it seem he was still alive or at least on the point of death. The original, revealed by the x-ray, portrayed a cadaver with a fallen jaw and limp body. There was also evidence of an underlying grid of squares which suggests that David had used the technique of "mise au carreau" to reproduce his picture square-by-square from a preliminary version.[See États du Lieu, post of 14/02/2010 ref. below]
Apart from the "mise en carreau", there is a single piece of documentary evidence for the existence of a preliminary drawing. In her Histoire des salons de Paris, the duchesse d’Abrantès mentions a sketch (une esquisse) of the picture, given by David himself to a certain M. de Bonnecarèce who was a friend and lived in Versailles. (vol. 3 (1838), p.77)
Sketches and paintings of the finished picture
1. Pen and ink drawing in the Musée Lambinet
|David, Drawing of Death of Marat, 1793. Pen, ink and white chalk on paper.|
Musée Lambinet, Versailles. The Bridgeman Art Library
This intriguing picture is part of the Bridgeman Art Library and can be found reproduced in a number of sites on the internet. Although it is in the Musée Lambinet and said to be by David himself, I can find no reference to it in any of the secondary literature. The Bridgeman site has a video where the drawing blends seamlessly into shots of the original, but unfortunately there appears to be no sound (see below). There is no particular reason to identify this as a preliminary sketch rather than a copy, but some clue as to provenance would be appreciated.
2. A drawing by David sold in 2007
Sotheby's "Old Master Drawings" London 4th July 2007.
Lot 108: Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat. 168 by 149 mm
Property from the Estate of the late Jean Montague Massengale
The drawing was sold for £132,000 against an estimate £35,000-£45,000
In 2007 Sotheby's in London sold this drawing by David. It was originally included in an album, now itself preserved in the Louvre, which belonged to one of David's pupils, Angelique Mongez (1775-1855) and which originally contained several fine studies by David. A chalk annotation on the inside of the front cover lists a sketch of "Marat assassinated by Ch. Corday" among the contents. (The picture was detached and sold separately in the late 19th century)
The drawing was at one time considered to be a preliminary study for the Brussels painting, but is now generally considered to be of insufficiently high quality. Rosenberg and Prat in their catalogue raisonné of David's drawings identified it as a ricordo, a record of the finished work. They suggested that it was probably drawn for Madame Mongez or another of David's friends/pupils and dated from 1817-20 when the original painting had been hidden.
3. A preparatory study discovered in 2008
|Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, oil on canvas, 72 cm x 92 cm |
Paris. Photo: Galerie Turquin
In September 2008 the commercial Galerie Turquin in Paris excited a great deal of interest in the art world by exhibiting three paintings by David, a Paris and Helen, a portrait of Edmond Dubois de Crancé, and thirdly a version of the Marat, which is now generally accepted as a preliminary study.
The picture is seven-tenths the size of the original (though it lacks the extensive empty vertical space above the figure) It was diiscovered by the expert Hubert Duchemin when it came up for auction and has been the subject of extensive restoration and comparative study.
According to the catalogue by Hubert Duchemin, the case for identifying the picture as a preparatory study rests on two main arguments. Firstly, the head of Marat looks like that of a cadaver. Especially when turned to vertical the mouth and entire face look slightly sunken. This detail resembles the original features revealed by x-ray analysis of the finished painting and thus strongly suggests an earlier phase of composition. Secondly there are a few repentirs, slight alterations in the wrinkle of the sheet and the height of the left arm. These whilst minor, would not have been present in a copy.
Duchemin's thesis clearly lends weight to the idea of David's progressive idealisation of his subject: according to publication of the Galerie Turquin, "Our painting, stripped of the coldness and didactic concerns of a grand commission, demonstrates David's profound emotion when confronted by the remains of his friend."
Didier Rykner, "Three David works exhibited at the Galerie Turquin", The Art Tribune, 18/09/2008
"D'un Marat à l'autre, les mystères de David", États du Lieu Blogpost 14/02/2010
Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution 1760-1830, exhibition catalogue, London: Royal Academy, 2006, cat. no. 148, pp. 311-2.
Guillaume Mazeau, Corday contre Marat: deux siècles d'images pdf. 2009.