Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.
From the outset, David was in active sympathy with the Revolution, and =his majestic historical paintings (especially the Oath of the Horatii, Death of Socrates, and Brutus's Sons) were universally hailed as artistic demands for political action. He orchestrated the great festival of the people, 14 July 1790, and designed uniforms, banners, triumphal arches, and inspirational props for the Jacobin club's propaganda. He was elected a Deputy from the city of Paris, and voted for the execution of Louis XVI. He was active in numerous agencies of the reign of terror, and historians have identified more than 300 victims for whom David signed execution orders. He was president of the Jacobin club on the day when his good friend and fellow Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat, was killed.
Marat, friend of Robespierre, Jacobin deputy to the Convention, and editor-in-chief of L'Ami du Peuple, was a fiery orator; he was also a violent man, quick to take offense. Some saw him as an intransigent patriot; for others he was merely a hateful demagogue On July 13, 1793, a young Royalist from Caen, Charlotte Corday, managed, by a clever subterfuge, to gain entry into his apartment. When Marat agreed to receive her, she stabbed him in his bathtub, where he was accustomed to sit hour after hour treating the disfiguring skin disease from which he suffered.
Marat is dying: his eyelids droop, his head weighs heavily on his shoulder, his right arm slides to the ground. His body, as painted by David, is that of a healthy man, still young. The scene inevitably calls to mind a rendering of the "Descent from the Cross." The face is marked by suffering, but is also gentle and suffused by a growing peacefulness as the pangs of death loosen their grip. David has surrounded Marat with a number of details borrowed from his subject's world, including the knife and Charlotte Corday's petition, attempting to suggest through these objects both the victim's simplicity and grandeur, and the perfidy of the assassin. The petition ("My great unhappiness gives me a right to your kindness"), the assignat Marat was preparing for some poor unfortunate ("you will give this assignat to that mother of five children whose husband died in the defense of his country"), the makeshift writing-table and the mended sheet are the means by which David discreetly bears witness to his admiration and indignation.
The face, the body, and the objects are suffused with a clear light, which is softer as it falls on the victim's features and harsher as it illuminates the assassin's petition. David leaves the rest of his model in shadow. In this sober and subtle interplay of elements can be seen, in perfect harmony with the drawing, the blend of compassion and outrage David felt at the sight of the victim. The painting was presented to the Coinvention on 15 November 1793. It immediately the object of extravagant praise; one critic claimed "the face expresses a supreme kindness and an exemplary revolutionary spirit carried to the point of sacrifice."
After Robespierre's fall, the painting was returned to David and was rescued from obscurity only after his death. Misunderstood by the Romantics, who saw in it only a cold classicism, it was restored to a place of honor by Baudelaire, who wrote in 1846: "The drama is here, vivid in its pitiful horror. This painting is David's masterpiece and one of the great curiosities of modern art because, by a strange feat, it has nothing trivial or vile. What is most surprising in this very unusual visual poem is that it was painted very quickly. When one thinks of the beauty of the lines, this quickness is bewildering. This is food for the strong, the triumph of spiritualism. This painting is as cruel as nature but it has the frgrance of ideals. Where is the ugliness that hallowed Death erased so quickly with the tip of his wing? Now Marat can challenge Apollo. He has been kissed by the loving lips of Death and he rests in the peace of his metamorphosis. This work contains something both poignant and tender; a soul is flying in the cold air of this room, on these cold walls, aropund this cold funerary tub."
David's position was unchallenged as the painter of the Revolution, and he sought in his three paintings of `martyrs of the Revolution', to apply to these modern men the same universal tragedy to be found in his beloved antiquity. Ultimately, only the Death of Marat survived. The Death of Lepeletier (of 1793) was destroyed in the Thermidorian reaction, and The Death of Bara remained unfinished. David himself was arrested during the Thermidorian reaction, but was not among the hundreds who were condemned to death. He was, however, jailed for more than a year, during which time he painted his second self-portrait.