This is an unfinished replica of David’s Death of Socrates (Salon of 1787; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The left section is nearly complete, lacking only bars on the window and decoration on a robe. To the right, the paint layers are peeled back progressively, so the underpainting is revealed in less and less finished layers. There have been attempts to attribute the replica to a David student and to explain why it is unfinished.
Perhaps the most convincing argument has been put forth by the scholar Thomas Crow, who has asserted that the finished parts are by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767–1824), and that the canvas was painted as a demonstration for students. Crow has even attributed the least finished portion to David himself, in a revolutionary reversal of normal workshop procedure, in which students prepare the underlayers and the master applies the final touches. The work is a perfect teaching tool (like an anatomical model that peels away layers of skin, fat, and muscle, finally to reveal bones), and the painting likely served that purpose in the studio of David, despite the lack of any mention of it in the texts of the time.
David’s celebrated composition depicts Socrates about to drink the poison that the Athenian state decreed as his punishment for subverting the youths of the city with his philosophical interrogations. His disciples bid him adieu. In 1787, Socrates was a model to those who wished to reform France’s government along the lines suggested by the contemporary philosophes, who were themselves subject to censorship and persecution.
David depicts Socrates about to drink hemlock rather than endure exile after being convicted by the Athenian government of subverting the local youth with his teachings. Disciples surround their principled friend, bidding him an emotional farewell. The theme was a potent one in the France of 1787, where Socrates was a hero to those seeking political and economic reforms.
Exhibited at the Salon of 1787, the signed version of The Death of Socrates (Metropolitan Museum of Art) was an immediate success. This rough canvas appears to be a copy, possibly executed by David and his students as a teaching tool. The left section is nearly complete; on the right, paint is peeled back to reveal layers of unresolved underpainting. This factor makes firm identification difficult. It has been tantalizingly argued that the least finished portions are by David himself, an inversion of the normal workshop practice in which students prepared the foundation layers before the master applied his brush.
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