MetCollects—Episode 3 / 2016: Perrin Stein on The Death of Socrates

"What is the path to a masterpiece?" Perrin Stein on Jacques Louis David's The Death of Socrates

Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). The Death of Socrates, ca. 1786. Pen and black ink over black chalk with touches brown ink; Sheet: 11 in. x 16 3/8 in. (27.9 x 41.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Walter and Leonore Annenberg Acquisitions Endowment Fund and J. Tomilson Hill and Mark Fisch Gifts, 2015 (2015.149)

MetCollects introduces highlights of works of art recently acquired by The Met through gifts and purchases. Discover a new work each month.

Perrin Stein: The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David is one of the great monuments of our European Paintings galleries. It is one of his iconic Neoclassical paintings, and for someone who has been at The Met a long time, it was a very familiar sight. So it was really a shock when I first saw this drawing when it came on the art market last year, and I recognized what was the artist's first ideas for that famous painting.

The scene is set in a prison. Socrates has been sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. He has already bid farewell to his family, and he is addressing his disciples and followers. David, in drawing this scene, is really interested in cataloguing the range of emotional reactions of his disciples and his followers. Some of them are wailing; others have their head in their hands. Plato, who is seated at the end of his bed, is looking away in quiet contemplation.

You can see looking at the drawing that David was really in a rush as he put down the lines, and he first began by drawing everything extremely quickly in black chalk and then he goes over it in pen and ink. And in some cases he's reiterating or reinforcing certain features, in other cases, he's making changes.

The guard has two arms and Socrates has no fewer than four legs, and the reason behind all these visible changes has to do with David's exploration of this critical exchange of the handing of the cup of poison and the hand accepting it.

Artistic invention is often shrouded in mystery, but with this we have a window onto David's creative process. And his process of thinking about these compositions was to look at his notebooks of all the antique sculpture he'd sketched in Rome, and you feel very closely the echoes of these poses.

If you compare the drawing to the painting, you'll see that David made some additional changes. He no longer has Socrates's hand overlapping with the cup, but rather hovering just above it, and there's a sense of electricity in that small gap between his present and his fate. The painting has great solidity, and he's modeled everything with great care, but in the drawing there aren't extra flourishes or design or ornament. You really have a distillation—a more pure form of the ideas.

For David, drawing is thinking. There's not really a separation. It's how he thinks with the chalk in his hand, with the pen in his hand. He works over every aspect of it—every aspect of placement, of psychology, until he finds the greatest resonance. It is those kind of building blocks, the trial and error that are so often lost and forgotten and invisible, but with a drawing like this, it really allows us to see and marvel at those steps.

Director: Christopher Noey
Producer: Sarah Cowan
Editor: Stephanie Wuertz
Camera: Stephanie Wuertz, Sarah Cowan
Music: Austin Fisher

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