15 Things You Should Know About Jacques-Louis David's 'Death of Socrates'

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Long before he was regarded as a pioneer of the Neoclassical style, 18th-century French painter Jacques-Louis David was fascinated by history, enamored by ancient art, and determined to use his works to change the world. With The Death of Socrates, he brought politics into painting, shook up the art scene, and won major admirers ahead of the French Revolution.

1. THE DEATH OF SOCRATES DEPICTED A REAL AND TRULY HORRIFIC EVENT.

In 399 BCE, the Athenian courts convicted the philosopher Socrates of impiety, declaring he was corrupting the youth and had failed to worship the city's gods. He was sentenced to execution by hemlock poisoning. His protégé Plato recounted in the Phaedo that Socrates did not run from nor cry over his impending demise. Instead, he treated his execution as his final lesson. Taking the poison before his students, he did so while lecturing about how he believed in the immortality of the soul, and so did not fear death. Nonetheless, his friends and students wept around him.

2. IT'S AN IDEALIZED PORTRAIT OF SOCRATES.

At the time of his execution, Socrates would have been about 70 years old, and was unlikely to have looked quite so fit. But a beefier body wasn't his only upgrade. Comparing The Death of Socrates to busts of the famed philosopher, it's clear David gave him a makeover with a softer profile and less bulbous nose.

3. PLATO MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Socrates sits just off center of the painting, reaching for the cup of poison, while giving a pointed speech. At the foot of the bed, turned away from him, is an old man with a beard and white robes. This is David's depiction of Plato, who wasn't actually present at the scene. Notably, he chose to make the Phaedo author look much older than he would have been at the time. Plato was roughly 29 when Socrates died.

4. DAVID BROKE FROM THE FACTS TO MAKE HIS MASTERPIECE.

David studied the Phaedo and conversed with scholar Father Jean Félicissme Adry, among others. But David did not feel beholden to his research. He made Plato older, Socrates fitter. He excluded some attendees from the scene, yet included both Plato and Apollodorus of Phaleron, a student of Socrates who the philosopher had kicked out for his intense display of grief. Apollodorus is the curly-haired blond who has thrown himself against the pillar inside the arch.

5. SOCRATES'S WIFE XANTHIPPE IS THERE TOO.

Look past all the weeping students, past the sullen Plato, into the hallway, where a woman in dusty pink robes waves her hand. That's Socrates's wife, seemingly regarded as an afterthought.

6. DAVID SIGNED THIS PIECE TWICE, AND WITH PURPOSE.

"L. David" can be spotted on the gray bench on which a man in a coral robe sits. That is Crito, an agriculturist and companion of Socrates depicted in Plato's works. It's believed this signature placement means David related most to Crito. The writer Victor Moeller has suggested this means the painter saw himself as someone who "clutches at the morals and values that Socrates represents," which is suggested by how Crito clutches at the philosopher's thigh.

The other signature is just his initials, L.D. They can be found on the bench where Plato sits. Art historians believe this is a sort of citation to the source material, nodding to Plato's contribution to this painting via his Phaedo.

7. IT WASN'T JUST HISTORY. IT WAS PROPAGANDA.

A few years ahead of the French Revolution, The Death of Socrates was commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, two radical political reformers who were calling for an upheaval of French norms by promoting a free market system. To them, Socrates was a hero who sacrificed himself to his principles rather than accepting banishment and shame. In this painting of stoicism in the face of death, David was creating a clarion call for how the rebels should push toward their goals, not with cowardice and outcry like Socrates's students—save for Plato and Crito!—but with self-control, honor, and fearlessness.

8. IT MIGHT BE INTENDED TO BE READ RIGHT TO LEFT.

In his video essay "The Death of Socrates: How To Read A Painting," writer Evan Puschak argues that the painting is meant to be read like an ancient Roman frieze. If perceived through this lens, first the viewer would take in the wailing students, and perhaps wonder why they cry. Then they'd regard Socrates, lecturing and strong. Then, in the direct center of the painting, the cup of poison, hanging heavy with threat and finality. Next is the red-robed student so rattled he can't even look at his teacher in this final moment. Lastly, we'd regard the old man on the bench, Plato, left behind to tell the story that survived his friend and mentor.

9. READING IT LEFT TO RIGHT OFFERS A DIFFERENT BUT STILL PLAUSIBLE INTERPRETATION.

Puschak notes that Socrates became famous because of Plato's writings about him and his philosophies. With this in mind, you could regard The Death of Socrates left to right and see it as essentially being about Plato. In this context, the philosopher is thinking back on that fatal day. Behind him the death of Socrates plays out as memory—vibrant, beautiful, and bittersweet.

10. THE MUTED COLOR PALETTE MIGHT BE DUE TO DAVID'S CRITICS.

In 1784, David debuted Oath of Horatii, which depicted a Roman legend with vibrant colors of crimson and blue. This palette was panned by critics, who called it "garish." As such, art historians suspect that David chose to subdue his reds in this piece. Notably, the colors grow more vibrant toward the center of the painting, thus drawing our eyes to Socrates and the young man holding the cup of poison.

11. THIS WAS ONE OF SEVERAL POLITICALLY MOTIVATED DEATH PORTRAITS DAVID PAINTED.

Outraged by the French monarchy, David became a passionate member of the Jacobin Club, a radical democratic group born during the French Revolution. He used his skills as a painter to benefit their cause whenever possible. As the years went by, David grew bolder, moving away from ancient history as allegory and painting more recent events to engage his audience. In 1793 and 1794, he memorialized French Revolutionaries with The Death of Marat, The Last Moments of Michel Lepeletier, and The Death of Young Bara.

12. THE DEATH OF SOCRATES FLEW IN THE FACE OF WHAT WAS POPULAR IN PAINTING.

At this time, Rococo was all the rage. This late 18th-century French artistic movement embraced light colors, ornate compositions, curves, whimsy, and luxurious gold tones. In David's painting, the focal point is a man made of angular geometry; those whose spines curve around him are perceived as weak. The colors are more vibrant, the composition detailed but not florid, the subject life and death, not whimsy.

13. YET THE DEATH OF SOCRATES WAS GREATLY PRAISED IN ITS TIME.

The painting debuted at a Paris salon on August 25, 1787. It's unknown how long its exhibition lasted, but what is known is that Thomas Jefferson was one of its earliest admirers. According to art historian Narim Bender, influential English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds compared it to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Stanze rooms. After visiting the salon nine more times to view it, he declared The Death of Socrates "in every sense perfect."

14. THAT VERY SALON WAS DEPICTED IN A FAMOUS ENGRAVING.

Italian artist Pietro Antonio Martini expressed his admiration over this epic exhibition by creating the breathlessly detailed depiction Exposition au Salon du Louvre en 1787. The piece captures numerous visitors, walls full of paintings, and The Death of Socrates. You can find it near the center of the painting, in the bottom row. Just below the large portrait of a woman in a gown, it stands out with its gaping archway hovering above a trio of chatting guests.

15. TODAY THE DEATH OF SOCRATES IS REGARDED AS A DEFINING PIECE IN THE NEOCLASSICAL STYLE.

Though Oath of Horatii was criticized for its color, it's now viewed as the start of the Neoclassical style. But it was the critical reception and popularity of The Death of Socrates that both cemented the style and brought it to the attention of the world. Neoclassicism found inspiration in ancient Greek and Roman art's focus on anatomy and musculature, the stark simplicity of their statues, and the two-dimensional friezes that captured historical events. Essentially, David took these inspirations and gave them new life in relevance with oil paints.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which proudly houses The Death of Socrates today, declares it as "arguably the artist’s most perfect statement of the Neoclassical style."

9 Facts About Vincent Van Gogh

A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh came to art relatively late, only deciding on it as a career at the age of 27. Now his post-Impressionist paintings of sunflowers, night skies, and the landscapes and people of Provence in southern France are among the most recognizable artworks in the world. But mental health issues, a lack of fame during his lifetime, and the infamous moment his ear was cut with a razor have made his story a compelling, complex narrative. Here are nine facts about the celebrated Dutch artist.

  1. Vincent van Gogh was an art dealer before he was an artist.

Before becoming an artist, Vincent van Gogh joined the art firm Goupil & Cie in The Hague in 1869 at the age of 16. In 1873, he was sent to London to work for the firm. His brother, Theo, worked for the same company in Brussels. While Theo thrived, Vincent struggled as an art dealer, and cared little for the commercial side of art. In 1876, he was fired. He then did some teaching and tried for a career as a preacher, like his father, but his first attempt at missionary work in a Belgian mining village was a failure. After six months, he'd made so little headway the evangelical committee that had sponsored him decided that he was unfit for the work.

  1. Vincent van Gogh was largely self-taught.

Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
J.M.W. de Louw, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Although van Gogh had short stints at art academies in Brussels and Antwerp, it wasn't a good fit—the teachers didn't like his style, and he didn't appreciate their traditional teaching methods. Over three months in Paris in 1886, artist Fernand Cormon mentored van Gogh in sketching studies of models. These brief experiences were the bulk of his art education. Instead, he focused on training himself: Early in his career, he created hundreds of drawings to play with ideas and develop his skills. He also spent hours studying drawing manuals and copying prints, including those of work by Delacroix and Rembrandt, to master his sketching technique.

  1. Most of van Gogh’s work was made in a single decade.

Van Gogh’s artistic career only spanned from 1880 to 1890. In that one decade, he created more than 2000 drawings, paintings, watercolors, and sketches. In the last two months of his life, while he was settled in Auvers-sur-Oise, he was prolific, making about a painting a day.

  1. Van Gogh only signed his first name.

Despite his late start as an artist, van Gogh was confident in his brand, and signed his paintings just “Vincent.” He may have chosen this shortened name because he knew his surname was difficult to pronounce (most people still don't give it the full "vun KHOKH" Dutch pronunciation). Or, he may have been inspired by his Dutch hero Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who similarly only signed his first name.

  1. Japan inspired van Gogh as much as Provence did.

While living in Paris from 1886 to 1888, van Gogh acquired a collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which influenced the aesthetics of his paintings. (A Japanese woodblock print of geishas appears in his 1889 Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear.) When he arrived in Provence and witnessed the weathered trees and soft light of Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo: "My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan." The colors in the paintings he created in Provence, particularly the blues, purples, and yellows, reflected the dominant palette of Japanese prints of the time. He also adopted the skewed perspectives—such as in the 1888 The Bedroom—and the diagonal, streaking rain that he observed in Japanese prints. Although he never made it to Japan, his idealized vision of the country infused his early depictions of the south of France.

  1. Van Gogh's paintings today don't always look the way he intended.

Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
Mary Turner/Getty Images

Synthetic paint tubes (a new invention dating to 1841) were increasingly available to artists in the 19th century, and van Gogh mixed their vivid hues with natural pigments. The lead-based chrome yellow gave his sunflowers their lively glow, while red made from cochineal insects were used as a warm texture in several paintings. However, his experimentation with novel colors means we sometimes don't see his paintings as he intended. The bright red geranium lake has faded from his wheat fields; a violet on the walls of the 1888 The Bedroom turned to blue as the red in the pigment dissipated.

  1. There’s much debate around the mutilation of van Gogh's ear.

One of the most well-known incidents in van Gogh's life was when he cut off his own ear on December 23, 1888, in Arles. How much he sliced off, and the circumstances of the mutilation, are still under debate. Some historians have posited that it was after a quarrel with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, as their friendship had rapidly deteriorated despite van Gogh’s hopes that they could form something of an artist community in Arles. Others have theorized that the act was in reaction to news that his beloved brother Theo was going to marry. By some reports it was just the earlobe, yet a sketch by Dr. Félix Rey, the physician who treated him, shows the whole ear being severed. Popular lore is that he presented the mangled flesh to a prostitute, but new research suggests it was a local farmer's daughter working as a maid in a brothel who was the unlucky recipient.

  1. Van Gogh's most famous artwork was painted in an asylum.

"This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big," Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June 1889. Although he didn’t include it in The Starry Night which he painted that year, the window he described was iron-barred and looked out from the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in southern France. He voluntarily admitted himself into the asylum on May 8, 1889. Created during this productive yet troubled time in van Gogh's life, the nocturnal tableau of curling pigment over a small village (which van Gogh largely imagined, with a church spire akin to those in his home country) is arguably his most famous work. It draws daily crowds in its current home, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

  1. Van Gogh's success was posthumous.

Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
PIERRE-FRANCK COLOMBIER/AFP/Getty Images

Two days after sustaining a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890. Thanks to his constant correspondence with his brother Theo, later historians were able to reconstruct his biography, and recognize the essential support that his brother offered to Vincent. He had little commercial or critical success in his lifetime; the lore that he sold one painting while alive isn't completely true, but isn't that far off. (He sold at least two.)

But after his death, his star rose, helped significantly by his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger. After Theo died in 1891, she inherited heaps of Vincent's art, and spent years organizing exhibitions, promoting his work across Western Europe, and getting his pieces in public art collections. In 1905, thanks to her efforts, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam hosted a retrospective. Now Vincent van Gogh exhibitions are blockbusters around the world. In 1990, his Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million at Christie's, setting a new record for a single painting.

A Resin-Preserved KFC Drumstick Can Be Yours for $100

Kentucky for Kentucky
Kentucky for Kentucky

Many devoted KFC fans love the chain's crispy fried chicken for its signature taste and mouthwatering aroma. If you just love the way the chicken looks, now you can keep it on your shelf to admire forever. As Food & Wine reports, Kentucky for Kentucky is selling whole KFC drumsticks encapsulated in resin for $100.

Kentucky for Kentucky, an independent organization that promotes the Bluegrass State, unveiled the jars of "Chick-Infinity" on its website earlier in June. The chicken pieces are authentic Colonel's original recipe drumsticks sourced from a KFC restaurant in Coal Run, Kentucky. While they were at their golden-brown peak, Kentucky artist Coleman Larkin submerged them in 16-ounce Mason jars filled with clear resin "with all the care of a Southern mamaw putting up greasy beans for the winter." 

KFC drumstick in a jar.
Kentucky for Kentucky

The project, part of Larkin's Dixieland Preserves line of Southern-themed resin encapsulations (which also includes the preserved poop of a Kentucky Derby winner), aims to present the iconic Kentucky product in a new way. "Honestly, is there anything better than biting into a warm, crispy KFC drumstick after a day at the lake?" Kentucky for Kentucky writes in a blog post, "we wanted to capture that feeling in a product that didn’t disappear into a pile of bones as soon as it’s opened."

Only 50 of the finger-licking artworks were created, and at $100 a piece, they're worth the price of several KFC family buckets. You can grab one while they're still available from the Kentucky for Kentucky online store.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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