The Morbid Beauty of Marat

Allow me to explain why a painting of a man murdered in his bathtub is one of my favorites.


The above painting, The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David (1793), is one of my most favorite paintings, and it has been ever since I came across it in a history textbook in eighth grade. The subject of the painting is Jean-Paul Marat, a radical journalist from the French Revolution who was murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a political enemy. Painted just months after Marat’s death, it has become one of the most famous images from the revolution.

I believe we most appreciate art when we

  1. admire it on first glance, then
  2. grow to appreciate it more when we learn the story and see the details, and
  3. make some aspect of the work applicable to our own life

This, obviously, is just my own rudimentary outline, but I think it holds up.

Like many (but not all) works of art that I admire, Marat intrigued me upon first look, in spite of its violent material. It is, like so many of the best paintings, one that is visually attractive even as we might react with shock or discomfort. It’s a sad image of a man either dead or dying in his bathtub, which should instantly make us wonder – why did the artist paint this? What’s the story? Why was this worth taking the time to turn into a work of art? Who was this man? However, the detail achieved through the oil medium, the use of lighting, and Marat’s idealized figure all remain visually compelling. What I did not know until recently was how similar Marat’s figure is to Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pieta (which is up there with my favorite sculptures) and in Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ (also a favorite of mine), and given the acclaim for all three of these works, it suggests that this pose resonates with people.

These initial impressions of beauty and gravitas develop upon observing the painting more closely and learning more of the story. You might notice that the murder weapon is still at the scene, or that Marat is surrounded by white cloth (important symbolically), or that he is still holding his quill pen, even if death has already taken him. You might also see that writing is visible on the letter and the box, and pursue what those French words mean (more on that later).

The painting’s meaning enhances when we pursue answers to those questions about the subject and its importance. What we find in this painting is that Marat was a radical journalist, writing about politics during the turbulent French Revolution. His enemies believed his rhetoric dangerous, and, as a result, he was silenced.

And that’s when it might hit you – he was killed doing the thing that got him killed. So maybe the cause of death is resting in his hand, not on the floor beside it. This enhances Marat’s martyrdom, as a writer who was killed while engaging in written correspondence.

And, not only that, but he was still writing even though his skin disease (which David opted not to depict) had forced him to semi-retire. He was bathing regularly to help his condition, and still kept writing.

But what about those French words? Well, the letter says Il suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir droit a votre bienveillanc, which can be translated as “Given that I am unhappy, I have a right to your help.” This seems rather inconsequential, to me at least, until realizing who wrote the letter: Charlotte Corday, the woman who murdered him. Corday was able to get close enough to stab Marat because she had written him a letter promising him aid in his cause. This makes Corday that much more villainous, and the death that much more tragic, but even this has a story – Corday did not flee the scene. Rather, she waited for police to arrive, and she was executed four days later. So are there really two martyrs here?

The writing on the box was, so far as I can tell, added by David in later versions after the original just contained David’s signature (“To Marat – David”). This version reads n’ayant pu me corrompre, ils m’ont assassiné, which can translate to “Unable to bribe me, they murdered me.” With a little more information, what was at first a beautiful but also thought-provoking painting unfolds into a story that augments the narrative the image was already suggesting.

And, then, finally, I believe that a work of art secures itself in our imagination when some aspect of the work becomes applicable to our own life. I’m a writer, so to see an image of a slain writer is going to resonate with me in particular ways. Marat wrote things that were so piercing, so politically charged, that his craft resulted in his death. He died for what he wrote, and he died while still writing. Will I ever write something that moves people in such a way? Will my thoughts on religion, race, and other controversial topics make me an enemy to some people? Will I have the courage to keep writing even as I take on the vitriol of my detractors? I know what it’s like to labor over a work of writing, to worry about what others will think, to receive criticism, and to feel like I’m about to die as I type away at a computer. And so did Marat, but at a level I can’t imagine, and though he died hundreds of years ago, still he dies in my mind’s eye, surrounded by ink and blood, if they really are, for him, different.

These applications do not fade – rather, they are refreshed as I continue to pursue writing and as I read what others write. I have said, and I continue to maintain, that internet literacy is a problem my generation must confront, and that the wild west of idiots with an internet voice (of course I’m being ironical) must be refined into something more useful. Is everyone on the internet ready to write with the gravitas of Marat? The better question: is anyone?

There you have it – in a thousand words I explained why I like this painting, and perhaps I’ve helped you to appreciate it, too. But that isn’t the sum of purpose for this post.

I wish everyone could readily name a favorite work of art, and then, for the sake of good conversation, tell me why. Could you? Could you name a work, and then take me through the three steps that I outlined earlier? If not to the same extent as I did, at least with the same verve and vigor?

Art matters even if we don’t talk about it. But it’s meant to be talked about. It’s meant to be appreciated – not just in our minds but in communal expressions of “I like this!” and “Whoah what is that?” and “Ohhhh, now I get it!” We already do this – what do you think makes Pinterest so popular, or trending topics so compelling, or comment sections so irresistible? So why don’t we do it with art? There’s a vast ocean of art just a few clicks away – you can see everything from ancient cave drawings to Renaissance sculptures to contemporary DeviantArt posters – and it need only take a few minutes of time. Why don’t we fill up our Facebook and Twitter timelines with great works of art?

Why not start right now?

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter