Artist: Jacques Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 51 x 77 1/4 in. (129.5 x 196.2 cm)
Credit Line: Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931
Accession Number: 31.45
The Athenian courts executed the philosopher Socrates (469–399 B.C.) for the crime of impiety: his behavior toward the gods was judged to have been irreverent, and he had exerted a corrupting influence on his young male followers. Socrates declined to renounce his beliefs and died willingly, discoursing on the immortality of the soul before drinking from the cup of poisonous hemlock. The Phaedo of Plato was David’s principal source. In a prison of unrelieved severity, he depicted a frieze of carefully articulated figures in antique costume acting out in the language of gesture the last moments of the moral philosopher’s life. Because, shortly before the onset of the French revolution, the painting gave expression to the principle of resisting unjust authority, it is among David’s most important works.
The canvas is arguably the artist’s most perfect statement of the Neoclassical style. The publisher John Boydell saw it at the 1787 Paris Salon, and later wrote to Sir Joshua Reynolds that it was “the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanze (rooms) of Raphael.”