Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787) is one of the most important paintings in The Met collection.
It is a permanent fixture in the European paintings galleries; our visitors expect to find it there.
But in anticipation of the exhibition, Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman, we took the painting off view for several weeks for an in-depth technical examination.
Our study revealed not only how David went about creating this masterpiece, but also that the changes and refinements to the composition seen in his preparatory drawings didn’t end when he began painting—rather, they continued through all stages of its execution.
At every step in the creation of The Death of Socrates, David was concerned with narrative clarity.
The painting depicts the Greek philosopher Socrates (469–399 B.C.) about to take a goblet of poison hemlock.
Imprisoned for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates refused to renounce his beliefs and was sentenced to death. Just released from his fetters, in his final moments he discourses on the immortality of the soul.
He is surrounded by his anguished followers.
At the foot of the bed sits Plato, who was not present at Socrates’ death but whose description of the event in his text, Phaedo, David followed closely in his painting.
The canvas was prepared with a thick ground composed of lead white that provided a smooth, luminous surface for painting.
Guided by his preparatory studies, David laid in the composition using various techniques.
For the architectural background he used a single-point perspective system, as he had in the circa 1786 study.
Positioning the vanishing point over Plato’s head directs the viewer’s gaze to the source of the narrative, one of the many pictorial devices that David deployed.
Not visible from the picture surface, the X-radiograph revealed a hole made by a stylus at the vanishing point, where the diagonal lines converge.
To make the lines David may have used chalk-covered threads snapped against the surface.
Infrared reflectography (IRR) is an analytical technique that uses a specialized camera sensitive to wavelengths longer than those the eye can see.
Depending on the artist’s materials and how they were applied, IRR can reveal underdrawing and changes in the composition not visible from the surface.
In The Death of Socrates, infrared imaging allowed us to see through the paint layers to the carbon-containing underdrawing—including contours, details, and folds in the drapery—made with fine, black, painted lines.
The underdrawing closely follows the individual figure and drapery studies, which David transferred to the canvas using the traditional technique of squaring.
In squaring, a grid is imposed on the original drawing; the same grid is applied to the new surface and the drawing in each square is copied into the corresponding square.
IRR also revealed some of the changes David made while painting.
Here, we see the chain that he initially painted hanging down over the leg of the bed.
In the final composition, the links simply snake around the end.
Many more changes and adjustments made in the process of painting were revealed with macro X-ray fluorescence, or MA-XRF.
In this technique, the painting is scanned with a focused X-ray beam, producing spectra from which elemental distribution maps can be calculated and the pigments present identified.
The Death of Socrates, being scanned using macro X-ray fluorescence.
For example, the mercury (Hg) distribution map shows the presence of vermilion (mercury (II) sulfide) in the flesh, clothing, and a hairband worn by the black-haired disciple that David later painted over.
He may have considered the detail too distracting.
As he had done in his preparatory studies, David continued to fine-tune the focus of the drama: the passing of the goblet of hemlock to Socrates.
The IRR image shows that Socrates’ forearm was initially blocked in slightly closer to the cup.
And the MA-XRF distribution map for mercury (Hg) shows that Socrates’ index and middle fingers were slightly extended before David adjusted them to a more relaxed position, perhaps indicative of the philosopher’s calm acceptance of his fate.
During painting, David even went to the trouble of opening out the right tacking margin to make a minor adjustment to the composition.
Initially, the right arm of the disciple at the far right was cropped, close to its appearance in the circa 1786 study.
As he worked left to right across the canvas, David may have decided that the right edge of composition needed stronger closure.
By opening out the canvas, he was able to make even clearer the disciple’s anguish from his posture, tipped backward, with his full forearm anchored by the edge of the painting.
This change parallels adjustments to a number of his compositional studies on paper, including the 1782 study for The Death of Socrates, where a strip of paper was added to extend the composition at the top.
The MA-XRF distribution map for iron (Fe) reveals the oculus window that David had tried in different locations in the 1782 (below) and circa 1786 studies.
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 x 58.4 cm). Private Collection
He initially blocked in the window on the wall behind Socrates but subsequently painted over it in favor of a more severe backdrop for the drama. In its place David painted a much smaller feature: a ring and hook.
Jacques Lous David (French, 1748–1825). The Death of Socrates, ca. 1786. Pen and black ink, over black chalk, touches of brown in, squared in black chalk, 11 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)
The most unexpected changes involved the small group of figures, traditionally characterized as Socrates’ family departing, having bid farewell.
With MA-XRF, additional figures were revealed on the stairs—apparently a cloaked woman carrying a child. The child holds her neck with one hand and reaches backward with the other.
Though we don’t know their identities, it is possible that they represent Socrates’ wife, Xanthippe, and their youngest son who, according to Plato’s account in Phaedo, was small enough to be held in his mother’s arms at the time of his father’s death.
David ultimately painted over these figures.
David’s changes and adjustments, for the most part imperceptible from the surface due to his sound and fastidious technique, provide fascinating insight into the artist’s mindset as he painted.
Each detail, angle, and relationship was carefully calibrated, every gesture choreographed.
Through the removal of extraneous features and the refinement of multiple elements, David arrived at a supremely resonant image.
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). Photo by Juan Trujillo
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. 9 1/4 x 14 3/4 in. (23.5 x 37.5 cm). Private Collection. Photo by Thomas Hennocque
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). The Death of Socrates, ca. 1782–86. Pen and black ink with brush and gray wash over black chalk, with light squaring in black chalk, 9 5/8 x 14 7/8 in. (24.4 x 37.8 cm). The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 2013 (2013.59)
Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). Seated Old Man (Plato), ca. 1786–87. Black chalk, stumped, heightened with white chalk, squared in black chalk, 19 3/4 x (50 x 59.7 cm). Musée Magnin, Dijon (inv. MMG 1938-234). Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Thierry Le Mage / Art Resource, NY
Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). Seated Old Man (Plato) with a Young Man Standing Behind Him, ca. 1786–87. Black chalk, stumped, heightened in white chalk, squared in black chalk, 20 13/16 x 14 9/16 in. (52.9 x 37 cm). © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours, photo by Dominique Couineau
Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). Study of drapery for the figure of Socrates in 'The Death of Socrates,' 1787. Black chalk, stumped, heightened with white chalk, squared in black chalk, 20 3/8 x 17 in. (51.9 x 43.2 cm). Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, France
Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). Crito, ca. 1786–87. Black chalk, stumped, heightened with white chalk, squared in black chalk, 21 1/8 x 16 5/16 in. (53.6 x 41.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rodgers Fund, 1861 (61.161.1)
Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). Study for a lamenting figure for 'The Death of Socrates.' 20 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. (52.8 x 35.1 cm). Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, France © Art Resource
Jacques Louis David (French 1748–1825). Study of drapery for two figures at the far right of 'The Death of Socrates.' 21 1/8 x 13 in. (53.7 x 32.9 cm) Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, France
Perspectives diagrams and images acquired by X-radiography and infrared reflectography courtesy the Department of Paintings Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Distribution maps and images acquired by macro-X-ray fluorescence (red for the Hg distribution maps; orange for the Fe distribution map) courtesy the Department of Scientific Research, The Metropolitan Museum of Art