Skip to main content

The Death of Socrates

CAT 165 W. Cooke after David Death of Socrates BA 82.jpg

CAT 165. W. Cooke after Jacques-Louis David. The Death of Socrates. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1807. Engraved for the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 1. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

The commentary that accompanied The Death of Socrates in the Historic Gallery mentioned the presence of three disciples of Socrates whose busts Melville owned in engravings from the Historic Gallery: Alcibiades, Xenophon, and Plato (CAT 9, 11, 12). Melville made his own commentary on “the bust of Socrates” he had seen in the hall of the Vatican in the lecture on “Statues in Rome” he gave in 1857-58: “The bust of Socrates is a kind of anomaly, for we see a countenance more like that of a bacchanal or a debauchee of a carnival than of a sober and decorous philosopher . . . . But a closer observer would see the simple-hearted, yet cool, sarcastic, ironical cast indicative of this true character” (NN PTO 400).

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) did not stress the anomalous or the ironical in the painting he exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1787. “Socrates,” in the words of the Historic Gallery, “having spoken to his disciples of the immortality of the soul, while absorbed in reflections so consolatory and sublime, extends his hand towards the bowl [of hemlock], in complete distraction of mind, without touching it.” The painting itself is “noble and simple in composition, pure and correct in design, combining the majesty of the antique with the accuracy of nature, while it exhibits figures profoundly imagined, and expressions of greatest interest” (HG, 1:255-56.)

Melville, in addition to writing “Death Socrates” in the upper margin of the engraving of David’s painting, marked two passages in the essay on “J. Louis David” in his copy of The Works of Eminent Masters. The anonymous author credits David with having rescued French art from the “voluptuous intoxication” that had prevailed from the time of Watteau through Boucher. The essayist notes with satisfaction that “the man who was to commence the revolution against the immodest Boucher” was that painter’s own nephew. He sees the seeds of that revolution in the visit to Rome in 1775 in which the young David frequented the halls of Vatican and began to “copy antique statues and the Italian masters.” The first passage that Melville marked in the essay begins with this assertion: “A great movement was taking place at Rome, a movement which was destined to carry David with it.” It continues by mentioning the reforms of Canova in statuary, of Mengs in painting, and of Winckelman in art history, indicating that David was to be returning to Paris in 1780 ready to the assimilate the reforms of these and other students of antiquity into his own “noble and energetic style” (Works 1:289-91; MMO 564, 1:291.) In Rome, David was also attentive to seventeenth-century paintings by the Carracci, Caravaggio, Guido, and Poussin (Lee, 555-56).

The rest of the essay provides a detailed account of David’s extraordinary career in the 1780s (when he was accepted into the Académie Royale and exhibited both The Oath of the Horatii and The Death of Socrates before the revolution of 1789), in the 1790s (when he helped to abolish the Académie Royale after painting The Oath of the Tennis-Court and then painted Marat assassinated in his Bath after voting for the death of Louis XVI), and in the early 1800s (when he created such iconic images of Napoleon as The First Consul Crossing the St. Bernard and in The Coronation—until the fall of Bonaparte sent David into exile in Brussels (where he ended his career painting such Boucher-like subjects as Mars disarmed by Venus). The other passage that Melville marked in the essay emphasizes the “enormous influence” that David “exercised over the character of his era. . . . This influence was continental, and it transformed and changed nearly every school in Europe. . . . He was absolute master of the arts” (Works, 1: 299; MMO 564, 1: 299).

The essay on “J. Louis David” is illustrated with several portraits as well as with line engravings of such iconic canvases as The Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates, and Napoleon Crossing Mount St. Bernard. The individual paintings are all discussed at length, with the author declaring that “since the Renaissance, there never was a painter” more capable than David of “executing the death of Socrates.” One of its remarkable details is that “the executioner is much more moved than the victim.” The disciples, including Plato sitting at the far end of the bed, show “minds divided between grief and admiration.” One critic who is quoted in this commentary faults David for the bold coloring he has given to action so stoic and severe (as in the bright red vestments of the young man who is extending the cup). In a statement certain to have interested Melville as a collector, he declares that it is therefore “much better to see [this] picture as represented in the engraving, if we wish to admire it without reserve and see it in its true light,--that is, the finest composition of all schools of painting’” (Works, 293). Below is the painting itself, which Melville would not have seen, now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (fig. 1).

CAT 165 fig 1 David Death of Socrates NY Met.jpeg

Fig. 1. Jacques-Louis David. The Death of Socrates, oil on canvas, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931.

In 1784, three years before completing The Death of Socrates, David had completed The Oath of the Horatii, the first work in which his revolutionary neo-classical style had fully coalesced. This work was discussed and reproduced in Melville’s copy of The Works of Eminent Masters on the page after the one on which he marked the passage about how David’s residence in Rome had prepared him to be the artist of the French revolution (Works, 1: 292; see fig. 2).

CAT 165 fig 2 david oath of horatii Works.jpg

Fig. 2. Jacques-Louis David. The Oath of the Horatii. Reproduced in Melville’s copy of The Works of Eminent Masters, 1854. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

In 2022, Elizabeth Adams made an excellent case for the influence of David’s pictorial Oath on the way Ahab choreographed actions of the three mates, and then the three harponeers, in support his own oath to destroy the white whale in the “Quarter-Deck” chapter of Moby-Dick (NN MD 165-66). The above reproduction of David’s painting in the 1854 edition of Works that Melville acquired in 1871 could not have influenced the fictional story of the novel that Melville published in 1851. But earlier engravings of David’s Oath were in circulation by the time Melville began the novel in 1850. And Melville is likely to have seen David’s original painting (fig. 3) among the “heaps of treasures” he saw at the Louvre on the afternoon of November 30, 1849 (NN J 31). Commissioned by Louis XVI, David’s painting had entered the French imperial collection as soon as he completed it in 1784 and it was still listed there in The Guide to the Galleries of Paintings of the Imperial Museum of the Louvre in 1855 (no. 150, pp. 531-32).

CAT 165 fig 3 david oath of the Horatii from the Louve.JPG

Figure 3. Jacques-Louis David. The Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 1784. The Louvre, Paris.

As Adams argues, David’s famous painting of the three muscular Horatii with outstretched arms pledging to battle the declared enemy to the death is a perfect model for the scene in which Ahab commands the three mates to “’Cross your lances full before me.’” Then saying, “’Well done! Let me touch the axis,’” Ahab, “with extended arm, . . .  grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed center.” After mesmerizing the mates with fiery glances from his “own magnetic life,” he then orders the three harpooneers to come forward so he can transform their “harpoon sockets” into “murderous chalices” with which to inspire the entire crew to join their captain in pledging “death to Moby Dick” (NN MD 165-66). Just as the father of the David’s oath-taking Horatii stands with his back to the weeping women certain to suffer from the results of the impending battle, so does Ahab lead his entire crew into a vengeful pursuit that will leave their loved ones behind (Adams, 16-18).

Melville was in his early thirties when writing Moby-Dick; David was in his mid-thirties when painting The Oath of the Horatii. The ambitious American novelist wrote Moby-Dick to put the carnage of the whaling industry behind him; the ambitious French painter was preparing himself for decades of political and social upheaval in which he “managed to encapsulate exactly in his painting the different aspirations of successive regimes” (Lee, 561).