Essay On The Death Of Socrates Painting

Jacques-Louis David — The Death of Socrates
1787. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Painting: GoogleArtProject | Wikipedia |
The Artist: ABCGallery | ArtChive | Met Essay | Met Timeline | Wikipedia |

Unity — Describe the forms that contribute to the unity of this composition.

(look for elements and traits that repeatedly appear)
The dominating darkness provides a visual foundation for the contrasting lighter figures. The few light and rich colors jump out easily against the dark. ( Dark dominant value)

The figures are composed as though on a shallow stage — all is happening in a narrow, confined space — unified and contained by the wall behind them. The wall is parallel to the picture plane — we're looking straight at it — thus is fully "flat" to us, severely bounding space.

Chromatic color is predominantly warm, where chromatic color occurs. The only cool colors are very subdued — almost gray.

All of the action is bounded by a horizontal rectangle —  the figures generally fit within that contained space. Also, lighting and continuities along the leftmost figure to Socrates' arm build a wide, flat pyramid, as well — a sort of stable compositional form.

In terms of narrative, most of the figures express grief or sadness or dismay — consistently negaive emotions — except Socraties who points upward to higer values. Also, all of the figuresa re men — except a departing woman in th edistance.

(look for alignments, structures or groupings that organize parts into larger entities (gestalt))
There is a kind of pyramid or triangle structure into which the figures are arranged, create a unified mass or grouping.

Variety — Describe the forms that contribute to the variety and dynamism of this painting.

(look for contrast of any and every kind. Look especially for similar forms that are varied in some way. Look for anomalies — patterns or norms that are broken.)

The intense light areas provide the main visual contrast — they are strong because the image is so dark overall. Socrates in particular is wearing a white robe. His flesh and the robe are well illuminated and so of a contrasting high value.
Notice the varieties of gestures and expressions among Socrates' friends. He, in particular is bold, confident and unafraid — active, lightened, and facing us.
Socrates alone is facing us, as he is also facing his death.
The illuminated action at the right is balanced by a deep-space area on the left — as friends (and Socrates' wife) depart, she looking back. That dark, but deep area offsets the shallow but active and illuminated right side.

Focal Areas — What areas are focal areas?
Describe the forms that contribute to their graphic emphasis?

The principle of organization may be seen by the placement of the man, Socrates. He is near the center and the placement of the group is natural and balanced. His figure is well-illuminated — his torso is a broad, light shape against the dark, simple background. His figure turned fully towards us — the only figure not turning away. His distinct, open gesture contrasts with the closed, tight forms elsewhere — he is active and extended in contrast to the other passive figures. The other figures have their backs to us, or are in profile. Further, the action (subject) is that of taking the cup of hemlock (poison), and thus accepting his own execution. His left hand is raised, pointing to the eternal truths of heaven -- that which he stands for, even as he dies.
The man with the bowl in his hand is directed towards the man raising his finger directing your attention there.
Along with the other men with their faces and attention pointed towards him. These aspects help direct the eye to the main figure, reinforcing its graphic prominence. 
The background-wall has a sort of spot-light effect, leading toward Socrates. The arch on the left and the dark triangle on the right frame that directional lighting.

In David's Death of Socrates the emphasis is established by the man in the white robe pointing his finger to the sky. His body is very prominent and the only one almost completely square to the front, and because also of his emotion presented is excited and alive.
Note the carefully placed, heightened contrast of lights and darks…large areas of white and of light color are bounded by sharp, crisp edges against dark background.
Note how the other figures “disappear” when contrast is subdued.

Other focal areas include the group to the right of Socrates, the two figures to his left, as well as the figures that are leaving in the distance, framed by the arched corridor. (though arches and barrel vaults would have been strange in Classical Athens.)

Relief Areas

Relief areas are be the extensive dark "white space" that makes up the background. The walls and floors are clearly quite subdued — very little contrast or detail.

Such well-established relief areas help preserve emphasis for the main characters.

Jacques-Louis David: ABCGallery | Wikipedia | Artchive | Artcyclopedia | WebMuseum | TheMet |

We're mainly focussing on the pure formal aspects of the composition. But it to understand why David arranged his image as he did, the narrative that he's illustrating is important. The death of the Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates is presented here.

" 399 BCE...Socrates was tried on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: corrupting the youth and impiety.
More specifically, Socrates’ accusers cited two ‘impious’ acts:
‘failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges’ and
‘introducing new deities.’
A majority of the 501 dikasts (Athenian citizens chosen by lot to serve as jurors) voted to convict him. Consistent with common practice, the dikasts determined Socrates’ punishment with another vote. Socrates was ultimately sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid. Well-known accounts of the trial are given by two of Socrates’ students, Plato and Xenophon. The trial is one of the most famous of all time. Whether Socrates was punished unjustly is a thought-provoking and contested issue, which to this day inspires discussions about the nature and meaning of justice."

"No works by Socrates himself survive, but his pupil Plato recorded numerous 'Socratic dialogues', with his teacher as the main character. Socrates's elenctic examination was resented by influential figures of his day, whose reputations for wisdom and virtue were debunked by his questions. ( see: Euthyphro ) Socrates himself famously calls attention to his fellow citizens' annoyance at his elenchos by describing himself as the "gadfly" of Athens. Socrates' elenctic method was often imitated by the young men of Athens.
Another possible source of resentment were the political views that he and his followers were thought to have embraced. Critias, who appears in two of Plato's Socratic dialogues, was a leader of the Thirty Tyrants (the ruthless oligarchic regime that ruled Athens for eight months in 404-403 BCE), but there is also a record of their falling out."

Following his trial and sentancing, "...Socrates's followers encouraged him to flee (see: Crito), and citizens expected him to do so and were probably not averse to it; but he refused on principle. Apparently in accordance with his philosophy of obedience to law, he carried out his own execution, by drinking the hemlock poison provided to him. Socrates died at the age of 70. (See: Phaedo)." ( wikipedia )

In this scene, Socrates is having his final conversation with his students and followers. (See: Phaedo) He is being handed the cup of hemlock — poison — which is his means of execution. He will shortly drink it willingly — accepting the decision of his fellow Athenians — the jurors in his trial, thus living by his convictions to the end.

Compare this image to Leonardo's Last Supper. Both artists use very similar tactics to express similar ideas. And Neoclassical, enlightenment-infuenced Jacques Louis David was surely intending to parallel the character of Jesus and Socrates, along with the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David

Socrates, famous Athenian philosopher and teacher of Plato, was unjustly convicted and sentenced to death for impiety and corruption of the youth of Athens. In his 1787 painting The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David attempts to capture the moment of Socrates' willing submission to death by hemlock. Plato writes about Socrates' trial, imprisonment, and suicide in three works, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. David includes elements from all three works in his interpretation of Socrates' death and is thus challenged with rendering visually historical events and the philosophical dialogues that surround them.  

During his trial, Socrates chooses death rather than exile to prove that he will not recant his ideas or cease to philosophize[1]. An underlying reason for his conviction, according to Apology, is the threat he poses to powerful figures within the Athenian community[2]. While imprisoned, he refuses Crito's offer to help him escape because he wants to honor the laws of Athens, an exchange detailed in Crito [3]. Phaedo tells us that before his execution, visitors come to say goodbye. After Socrates' three sons, his wife, and all of the women of his household are sent away for showing too much grief, the guard gives him the hemlock and also departs in mourning. This leaves Socrates with five friends, Phaedo, Simmias, Cebes, Echecrates, and Crito. His friends begin to cry as he continues to philosophize, but he scolds them for tainting the moment of his heroic death with their emotional weakness. Socrates dies soon after on his bed after fearlessly drinking the hemlock[4].

Plato was not exclusively concerned with recounting details about the death of Socrates with great historical accuracy; he used his accounts to put forth his own philosophical arguments. Similarly, David is content to deviate from the story presented in Plato's narratives. He combines elements from the three accounts, sometimes disregarding chronology or minor details, in an attempt to convey the most meaningful message possible using a single image. For example, although Phaedo tells us that only five men were present with Socrates at the time of his death, David’s painting shows seven, in addition to the departing guard and four figures who have left the room. David appears to have included clues about the identities, both of figures present in Plato’s accounts and figures he added symbolically, to elucidate his interpretation.


Whether or not viewers have consulted Plato’s primary sources, visual information allows them to extract meaning from the painting. They can identify the figure pointing upwards and sitting on the bed as most important. Socrates is positioned centrally, only slightly right of center, and his figure is highlighted with light. In contrast with his mourning friends Socrates noticeably sits upright and appears to philosophize or instruct his friends, showing no signs of despair. His emphatic gesture towards the heavens can be seen as a moralizing reference to the divine, which to Socrates would not have been the standard deities of the Athenians. His muscular body forms more right angles than any other figure’s; other figures slouch and have postures slanted slightly inwards, towards Socrates about whom they are all concerned. He is brought to the fore by his visual centrality, distinctiveness of gestures and emotion compared to the others, as well as by his appearance of physical and emotional strength. All of this tells us what Plato’s accounts communicate as well, that Socrates was a man of courage, virtue, intellectual prowess, and influence.  

The other figures are less conspicuous, either turned away from the viewer or covered in shadows. Each of Socrates’ friends shows grief differently. On the left, the unmoving man sitting at the foot of the bed and looking down appears drained and defeated. The man against the wall appears to have removed himself from the scene to sob. The cup given to Socrates seems to contain something harmful yet central to the story; its presenter is cringing with grief or guilt and turns away from Socrates. He and the cup share center stage with Socrates, and only his bright clothing rival’s Socrates’ posture and centrality as an attraction to the eye. On the right, the figure in dull orange clutches Socrates’ leg and stares up at him, as if cherishing him for the last time. The two men gazing at him from behind appear to respectfully conceal their grief, as Socrates has requested, and listen to his final speech. The other three on the right are sobbing and flailing in overt displays of sorrow. The person ascending the staircase in departure is waving goodbye, and her companions look downcast. Altogether, this appears to be a seen of grieving for the approaching loss of the central figure. The barred windows in the room beyond, the shackles on the ground below the bed, the the bareness of the room and its unadorned furnishings, and the gloomy gray of the walls indicate that this space is likely a prison. 

Socrates’ centrality and reception of the hemlock are not the only clues about his identity; Phaedo tells us Socrates was composing verse, and he could have been doing so with the lyre sitting next to him [5]. Starting from the left, the figures ascending the stairs are most likely Socrates’ family because Phaedo tells us they were sent away[6]. The waving figure and the figure further from the viewer, wearing white, are indistinguishable as male or female and could be sons, slave women, or Socrates’ wife. If the departing figure in yellow is meant to be a son, his age would be too close to Socrates’. It is more likely, due to his possession of a walking staff that could symbolize wisdom acquired with age, that he is one of Socrates’ fellow philosophers. Next, the man against the wall clothed in blue and brown could be a grieving son of Socrates making his way out. The man seated at the foot of the bed is likely Plato (although not actually present), represented with the scrolls and ink below him as one who documents this event. Phaedo tell us that Socrates was given the hemlock by the guard, which means that the man in scarlet is likely the guard. 

To the right of Socrates, the man in dull orange seated on the gray stone with a Greek inscription reading “Athens” could be Crito; in Crito Socrates turns down a chance to escape because of his respect for the laws and the people of Athens. Behind the seated man and to his right, the only identifiable figures are the two with similar, intense gazes—one with light brown hair and gray clothing and the other with gray hair and brown clothing—standing behind Socrates. They are probably Simmias and Cebes, given their similitude and close proximity to one another; Simmias and Cebes are usually spoken about in pairs and address Socrates together in Phaedo[7]. 

And So Socrates Dies, Robert Fowler

The Death of Socrates, Jean-Francois-Pierre Peyron


Two paintings also depicting the philosopher’s death are The Death of Socrates painted in 1787 by David’s contemporary Jean-Francois-Pierre Peyron, and And So Socrates Dies by Robert Fowler (unknown date). Neither painter’s subject matter is as legible as David’s, especially in their treatment of Socrates’ centrality. In Peyron’s painting it is not clear that Socrates, located to the right rather than in the center, is the most important figure. Lighting gives equal attention to a man on the floor being comforted by a woman, although it is not clear who he is or why he should be brought to immediate attention. While Fowler’s interpretation does give appropriate attention to Socrates as the central figure, only one man in the far left is sobbing, while the rest seem to be pondering Socrates’ death. Fowler’s background creates a non-space for the figures to occupy. The space in Peyron’s painting is more prison-like than that in David’s because the majority of the space is shadowy and obscured, as a real prison would have been. However, the clustered figures are disconnected from the main event of Socrates’ death, and they do not look at Socrates as much as figures from David’s and Fowler’s paintings, which detract from his perceived importance. Both Peyron and Fowler include more shadows and darker hues than David, and their interpretations are generally gloomier, with figures that appear less lively. The facial expressions and postures of figures in David’s interpretation are far more varied than those in Peyron’s and Fowler’s; it is easier to identify Socrates in David’s interpretation than in these other two.


Contributor: Kayla T. Matteucci


1. Jowett, Benjamin. "Apology." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 42b-c. Paw Prints, 2011.

2. Jowett, Benjamin. "Apology." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 19a-d. Paw Prints, 2011.

3. Jowett, Benjamin. "Crito." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 48e. Paw Prints, 2011. 

4. Jowett, Benjamin. "Phaedo." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 115b-118a. Paw Prints, 2011.

5. Jowett, Benjamin. "Phaedo." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 58-61c. Paw Prints, 2011. 

6. Jowett, Benjamin. "Phaedo." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 115-118. Paw Prints, 2011. 

7. Jowett, Benjamin. "Phaedo." In Six Great Dialogues Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, the Republic., 84-88. Paw Prints, 2011.



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