Meaning Of “The Death Of Socrates” By Jacques-Louis David

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David cover image

Whether you are into paintings and art or not, whether you are into philosophy or not, the popularity of Socrates surpasses every realm. Socrates is arguably the most famous Western philosopher to ever exist. And the popularity of the painting “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David is a testament to that. 

We are sure you must have seen this painting somewhere. For the people who do not know, Jacques-Louis David is the same artist who painted the famous “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” painting. But “The Death of Socrates” is special in terms of how the artist has imagined and shown the scene of Socrates’ death. 

“The Death of Socrates” was painted in the year 1787, just two years before the French Revolution. The medium of the painting is oil on canvas, and it is a painting of the Neoclassicism period. The painting depicts a scene from the book Phaedo by Plato. Interestingly, the book’s core theme is the immortality of the soul. 

The Composition

The composition of the painting is fairly simple and very similar to the other paintings in the neoclassical period. The subject of the painting sits at the center of the canvas while the peripheral subjects are all around it. The painting is very carefully balanced with each element connecting perfectly to the subject. 

The background is also painted in a way to provide a perfect contrasting background for the scene in the foreground. The dull gray color of the wall not only helps in bringing out the vibrant colors of the people but also sets the somber mood for the scene. 

Also, notice that the person at the extreme right is wearing a blue robe. Then our eyes move to Socrates in his white robe. Finally, we get to the person handing the poison wearing red. A combination of blue, white, and red. Sounds familiar? That’s the tricolor flag of France. Jacques-Louis David was the designer of the flag. 

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

The People of the Painting

Let’s come to the people of the painting. The man in the center is Socrates himself. He is about to be executed for the crimes of corrupting the youth with his philosophy and ideas. Socrates does not look like a man who is about to die in a few hours. 

The person next to him whose hand is on Socrates is Crito. Crito was a powerful man and in this painting, he is seen convincing Socrates to escape the prison and prevent his death. There is a complete dialogue between the two in the book Crito. 

Then there are other people who are there, mourning for him. But the most interesting person is the old man who is almost half asleep. That old man is Plato, Socrates’ most devoted student. So what’s going on in this scene?

What’s Happening Here

Socrates has been ordered to die by the ingestion of Hemlock, a highly poisonous plant that kills by paralysis. Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and not acknowledging the Gods of Athens that people acknowledged. 

He was tried by a Jury and found guilty. Despite having the ways of getting out of the death sentence, Socrates chose not to avoid it for it would have been morally wrong. He happily accepted his fate and even before succumbing to death, he engaged in a dialogue with the people present there. 

You can see in this painting how passionate he is, with a bright smile on his face. While Socrates was around 70 when he died, Jacques-Louis David has shown him in a more robust physical form to deliver the impact of his intellectual strength. Despite being perfectly fit in the body and the mind, the man happily accepted death but not running away or changing his philosophy. 

Something is Not Right

The highlight of the painting, and something people do not realize is the man sitting at the extreme left of the canvas. The man sitting there, unaffected by the whole thing is Plato. So how come the most devoted student and follower of Socrates is not bothered by the death of Socrates? Because Plato is not there at all. 

An old Plato in this painting The Death of Socrates

When Socrates died, Plato was just around 20 years old. So it makes no sense as to how Plato, this old and weary man is present here. The entire scene of the painting is just Plato’s memories. Plato, in his old age, is sitting down and thinking about what had happened that day. 

Let us edit the painting and highlight it in a way that shows how the entire scene of the painting is just a fragment of Plato’s memories. As you can see, the entire painting is structured in a way that makes it look like a scene inside the mind of Plato. 

It makes the painting unique and layered. The artist has played so well with the structure that there is meaning within the meaning of the painting. A work of true genius. All of these elements of the painting make it worthy of all the attention it gets. 

Also read: Self-Portrait in Hell by Edvard Munch: The Meaning