The ideas being worked out on this sheet, put down with urgency and numerous reworkings, represent the conceptual framework that would become one of the most important paintings hanging in our galleries...
The Museum acquires drawings for many different reasons. Some are highly finished works of art; others are messy and full of changes. In the latter case, their value might lie in the fact that they freeze in time a momentary spark of inspiration, when an original idea first popped into an artist’s head. The ideas being worked out on this sheet, put down with urgency and numerous reworkings, represent the conceptual framework that would become one of the most important paintings hanging in our galleries: Jacques Louis David’s Death of Socrates, painted in 1787.
David was the leading artist of the Neoclassical period. Trained in Paris in the painterly and expressive idiom of the late Baroque, he essentially remade himself during his student years in Rome by studying and assimilating the aesthetic of classical antiquity. Hallmarks of the new style are in full evidence here in the clear geometry of the architectural setting and the classicism of the figural types, costumes, and décor. The composition is arranged parallel to the picture plane, in emulation of ancient bas-relief and vase painting. The style of draftsmanship is crisp and linear, even when depicting movement or extreme emotion.
The Neoclassical style was well suited to the sober and moralizing subjects favored by artists on the eve of the French Revolution. The Death of Socrates depicts the ancient Greek philosopher in prison in 399 B.C. He has been sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens with his unorthodox ideas. As the guard hands him a goblet of hemlock, Socrates addresses his grieving followers, perhaps expounding on the immortality of the soul.
In this recently acquired work, David first sketched the scene very quickly in black chalk, both freehand and, for the architecture and perspective lines, using a compass and a straight-edge. He then returned with pen and black ink to elaborate and reinforce many of the figures and certain elements of the décor. One can see throughout the composition the changes he made to the poses and gestures of the figures and to the geometry of the setting. In this way, the sheet bears witness to the creative epiphanies that transformed the artist’s initial ideas into the moving and layered narrative of the finished painting.
Department of Drawings and Prints