Perspectives Power and Privilege

Prisons Real and Imagined

In Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787), a parable of principle on the eve of the French Revolution.

Mar 14, 2022

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In this striking picture, we witness the last moments of a man’s life.

The man is the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Convicted by the Athenian courts of corrupting his followers with unorthodox teachings, he was offered the choice to renounce his beliefs or drink a cup of hemlock.

He chose the poison.

This painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), titled The Death of Socrates (1787), envisions the moment Socrates paused to address his disciples before drinking from the deadly cup. Completed on the eve of the French Revolution, it exemplifies David’s ability to address—and even galvanize—public sentiment through well-chosen episodes of ancient history.

David presents this wrenching tableau with perfect legibility, the fleeting moment frozen for the viewer’s unhurried contemplation.

Sunlight from an unseen source bathes the scene. The barred windows and cold stone walls identify the setting as a prison cell.

An open metal cuff rests on the stone floor.

In a visceral evocation of physical pain, Socrates’ ankle bears faint touches of red paint, as if the philosopher was just released from his shackles.

His expression, by contrast, is calm and full of resolve.

He gestures upward as he expounds, according to ancient texts, on his belief in the immortality of the soul.

Despite Socrates’ attempt to offer solace, the expressions of the men around him run the gamut.

Some of his followers listen attentively, while others appear gripped by anguish and despair.

A bearded figure sits by Socrates’ side and grasps his thigh, as if imploring him to reconsider.

The young man charged with handing Socrates the goblet of poison cannot bear to face him.

One figure seems to exist outside the drama: seated at the foot of the bed and facing away, his head bent and his hands folded in his lap.

He represents Socrates’ student Plato, who would have been in his 20s at the time of his teacher’s death and not present in the prison cell.

However, David here depicts Plato as an old man, the age he would have been when he described the scene in Phaedo, one of his “Dialogues.”

Plato’s role as storyteller is indicated by the writing implements David has placed at his feet: a scroll, a pen, and an inkwell. 

David—who, as a painter of ancient history and legend, was another type of storyteller—credits his own role more subtly, by adding his initials to the stone block.

David’s close reading of Plato’s Phaedo is evident in the painting’s details.

The lyre on the bed, for instance—an unexpected object to find in prison—refers to a passage in which Socrates and his students debate whether the instrument and its music constitute an appropriate analogy for the human body and soul.

Though not an uncommon subject at the time, the determination with which David researched the story, delving deep into its complexity and nuance, gave his depiction a unique resonance.

In fact, long before he would raise brush to canvas, and even before he received this commission, David experimented on paper with ideas for staging the subject of Socrates’ death.

The earliest evidence of David’s engagement with the theme is this sheet, signed and dated 1782. Using chalk and gray wash, the artist quickly sketched a prisoner on a bed, surrounded by seven figures, against the simple backdrop of a stone wall.

In 1782, David had recently returned from five years of study in Rome. His depiction of Socrates—with a broad forehead, a small nose, and a beard—shows an awareness of how the philosopher’s features were portrayed in Classical busts.

A classical bust of the philosopher Socrates

Herm of Socrates, 4th century BC. Marble, 21 1/2 in. (54.8 cm). Musei Capitolini, Rome, Sala dei Fliosofi

This sheet bears physical evidence of numerous revisions, illustrating how David used drawing as a means of developing ideas through trial and error.

He was uncomfortable with the idea of selling or exhibiting his drawings—they were part of his working process and, for the most part, remained in his studio.

Looking at them today, however, we can follow the progress of his thinking.

David was not happy with his first version of the seated figure holding a book. He covered it by pasting down a cut-out piece of paper, on which he redrew the figure on a slightly smaller scale.

Another piece of paper is pasted over the angled stone wall.

These adjustments show David’s process of making changes and trying out new ideas.

David considered certain elements of this initial sketch unsuccessful.

In the final painting, he removed the distracting bookshelf on the wall and the heavy tome on the seated disciple’s lap.

He also adjusted the position of the cupbearer, so that he no longer blocks Socrates’ leg, and raised Socrates’ arm so that it hovers over the goblet, calling attention to this critical detail.

Such refinements were common for David, who often pared down extraneous elements to better direct the viewers’ eyes toward telling details.

In this initial conception, the space is shallow and the cast of characters significantly smaller. Still, key elements are present: Socrates sits on the bed, gesturing upward; Plato is seated at left, facing away; and the cupbearer stands between them, averting his gaze.

This sketch likely languished in a portfolio for years as David pursued other projects. Then, around 1786, he received a commission from Charles Louis Trudaine de Montigny, a young councilor in the Paris parliament whose father had been the minister of finance.

Here, in a study that came to light in 2015, David returns to his initial concept with a rush of new ideas.

For one, he pierced the solid wall with a vaulted hallway leading to a set of stairs based, perhaps, on a building he had sketched years earlier in Italy.

Jacques Louis David. View of the Entrance to a Palace, ca. 1775–80. Black chalk, 5 1/4 x 7 3/8 in. (13.5 x 18.8 cm). Musée du Louvre, Paris

In the final painting, Socrates’ family exits up the stairs.

We also see here how the artist subtly calls attention to the role of Plato by placing the scene’s vanishing point (where the receding lines of perspective converge) just at the crown of Plato’s head.

But the bulk of the pentimenti—the visible traces of the artist’s earlier ideas—center around the limbs of Socrates and the cupbearer.

Fanned out across the center of the composition are multiple iterations of legs and arms. For example, here he adjusts the angle of Socrates’ leg across his bed.

At the drawing’s center, we see David work toward the perfect articulation of a powerful vignette. In the finished canvas, Socrates’ right hand and the gap of space just below it provide the narrative its fulcrum—time seems to stop as the poison passes from one hand to another.

Even after forms are fixed—after the paint has dried and the artist has signed the canvas—our perception of an artwork continues to evolve. But few paintings have had as ironic an afterlife as David’s The Death of Socrates.

The years following its completion saw not only the overthrow of the French monarchy and founding of the First Republic, but also the imprisonment, in short succession, first of the painting’s patron and then of the artist himself.

Trudaine, a wealthy aristocrat, was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, a yearlong period of the French Revolution characterized by public executions led by Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins.

Despite his entreaties to David, who then held powerful government positions, Trudaine was guillotined on July 26, 1794.

Joseph Benoît Suvée (French, 1743–1807). Portrait of Charles-Louis Trudaine de Montigny, 1794. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 19 1/8 in. (60 x 48.5 cm). © Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours. Photo D. Couineau

Two days later, the tables were turned when members of opposing factions in the National Convention turned against Robespierre. He would be arrested on July 27 and executed the following the day. His allies—David among them—were soon rounded up and imprisoned.

In his last speech to the Jacobin Club, seeking to defend himself, Robespierre invoked the stoic example of Socrates by declaring he would drink hemlock. David reportedly replied, “I will drink it with you.”

During this uncertain and likely terrifying time, David began a series of intimate and sober portraits of former Jacobin deputies.

Carefully worked in pen and wash, the drawings in this series refer to the Classical portrait medallion. Rendered with a sense of naturalism, they capture both the fear and dignity of these men who may have considered themselves—like Socrates—imprisoned for their principles.

David and the subjects of his prison portraits were all eventually released, and the drawings transformed from effigies of potential martyrs to tokens of friendship and emblems of resilience.

Still, even years after his release, the image of the prisoner continued to haunt David.

In this early-nineteenth-century drawing, made after he had been banished to Brussels following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, David revisits the figure of the prisoner.

Here, he’s more anguished than noble.

The composition—typical for the artist’s late drawings—is so cropped and spare that we cannot identify the subject.

Is he a prisoner of the ancient past? Of literature or stage? Or is David haunted by his lived experience: the harsh justice meted out during the Reign of Terror and its aftermath?

Incarceration and liberty are two of the strongest themes that run through David’s body of work; survival was portrayed as less important than fidelity to higher principles. In his prison portraits, as in his history paintings, it was nobility of character tested by hardship that David celebrated.

Tracing this theme through David’s work, we witness art becoming reality and then becoming art again. As viewers, we find ourselves in a liminal space: between the prison cell of reality and that of the imagination.


Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). The Death of Socrates, 1787. Oil on canvas, 51 x 77 1/4 in. (129.5 x 196.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931 (31.45)

Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). The Death of Socrates, 1782. Black chalk, brush and gray wash, touches of pen and black and brown ink, with two irregularly shaped fragments of paper affixed to the sheet and a strip added along the upper margin, sheet: 9 1/4 x 14 3/4 in. (23.5 x 37.5 cm), frame: 17 1/2 x 23 in. (44.5 ×x58.4 cm). Private Collection

Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). The Death of Socrates, ca. 1786. Pen and black ink, over black chalk, touches of brown ink, squared in black chalk, 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 Mr. and Mrs. J. Tomilson Hill and Mr. and Mrs. Mark Fisch Gifts, 2015 (2015.149)

Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). Portrait of Jeanbon Saint-André, 1795. Pen and black ink, brush and black and gray wash, heightened with pale yellow wash and white gouache, over graphite, diameter: 7 1/4 in. (18.2 cm), frame: 13 7/8 x 13 7/8 x 2 in. (35.2 x 35.2 x 5.1 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Regenstein Collection

Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). Portrait of a Man, 1795. Pen and black ink, brush and gray wash, over traces of black chalk, diameter: 7 5/16 in. (18.5 cm). Private Collection

Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). The Prisoner, ca. 1816–22. Black chalk, sheet: 5 1/4 x 7 3/4 in. (13.4 x 19.7 cm), framed: 20 5/8 x 15 1/2 in. (52.4 x 39.4 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund