Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates Painting Meaning
Hi there! This is Cindy from the Art Curator for Kids at ArtCuratorforKids.com. On Art Curator for Kids I share works of art with you from throughout art history, talk about them, and talk about how to talk about them with kids.
Today we’re going to talk about one of my favorite paintings. This is The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David. It’s a Neoclassical painting from 1787. I want you to just take a quick look at it. I’m not just going to start telling you about it. I’d like you to take a good look first, and I want you to think about what is happening in this painting. Take a look at all the visual clues. Take a look at all the different people. What are they thinking about? Take a look at all the different people. What are they thinking about? What are they feeling? What’s the story being told? Can you tell?
The first thing you might have noticed is this dude in the center here. This is Socrates. He is sitting in the middle of this bed. He’s looking strong, and he’s looking confident. He’s got his finger pointing in the air like he’s teaching, and he’s got all the light showing on him. He’s also in these white robes/this white sheet draped around him. That soft of draws attention to him, and he’s in huge contrast to the people around him.
Take a look at how he is compared to the rest of the guys. They are very emotional are distraught.We’ve got people cursing the sky. This guy looks totally frantic. Just totally distraught people in lots of different ways of showing that emotion. They’re very upset.
Now, let’s see what else? What are the clues here that tell us the story. Alright, Socrates is reaching for a drink there, and this guy is trying to give it to him, but you can tell he doesn’t want to give it to him. So, there’s something weird happening with the drink.
What else is going on? We’ve got, let’s see,chains at the bottom. Did you see the chains? Did you notice them? Now we’ve got an open leg–you know the little things that go around the ankles–an ankle chain there. It helps you try to figure out what the world is going on here. If you take a look around the surroundings, we’ve got a little metal hook or metal circle up there. It could be what the chains tied to. I’m not sure. Over here, we’ve got windows with bars on them, so that could give you some more clues about what’s happening here.
Have you figured out any of the story yet? And then you look at the title. It says Death of Socrates. I’m pointing these things out, because I want you to think of them yourself–see if you can figure it out. see if you can figure it out. This is the story of the death of Socrates Socrates. The was about 399 BCE, and Socrates was tried for some crimes. His crimes were “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.” So, they put him into trial and he was charged with it. He was found guilty and his punishment was death. They were going to put him to death for it.
And a lot of his followers and probably all these guys here on the screen were telling him to flee. They said “well you can get out of this. Just go and leave!” And he said “no.” You know, he’s standing up for the place that he loves, Athens. He is standing up for his ideas. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong, and so he is going to take this punishment with honor and do it. So this is the moment where he is about to drink the poison. The hemlock is in that cup. He will take a drink, and that will be be his death. He’s still strong. He is fighting. He is honorable. He is teaching to the end and preaching to the end. When everyone else is falling around him, he is still strong in the face of death.
That was a huge symbol for what was going on in the world in 1787. Think about it. If you know your history, you know that in the late 1780s, this was the time of the French Revolution. This was right after the American Revolution. This was is when people were fighting for their rights. They were fighting against monarchies. They were fighting against the wealth and excesses of royalty, and they were standing up for themselves.
And so this story of Socrates and his death was a symbol of everything that they believed in. They were against over-the-top emotion and frivolity and for things like logic and reason and honor and patriotism. And so Socrates, here, standing up for his beliefs, standing up for what he knows is right even though others are telling him that he did something wrong. This is what it was all about in the late seventeen hundreds. You know? And it’s so cool that this artwork can symbolize the time that it was made so well by telling a story from the past. We really can see the beliefs of the people in the late seventeen hundreds in France and understand them better by looking at this artwork.
The Neoclassical artists also were very inspired by Ancient Greece and Rome. You can see it’s a story from back then but also the way they’re dressed, the sort of ideal way of showing Socrates. Look how chiseled he is. I mean, he is very strong and muscular. At that age, he probably wouldn’t have looked like that. So they like to sort of make people a little bit more beautiful than they might have been which is what they did in Ancient Greece too.
So it’s a really cool painting. It has such a great way of symbolizing what was going on in the world at the time by referencing history. So, I hope you enjoyed looking at Death of Socrates. I could talk about it more but I probably should just cut it off.
Thank you very much for watching my first video where I just sort of talk about art with you. I hope you learned something new. I hope you enjoyed the painting, and I will be back with another painting in the future. Thank you very much for watching!
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