Jean-Paul Marat, the famous French revolutionary and member of the Club des Cordeliers, was assassinated by the Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday two hundred twenty-two years ago today. David’s rendering of Marat lying dead and bloodied in his bathtub, Corday’s concocted note still held in his left hand, is perhaps the most iconic political image of all time. On numerous occasions it has been parodied, satirized, and otherwise détourned (most notably in 1860, under Louis Bonaparte’s reactionary Second Empire, by the “patriotic” painter Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry).
An account of Marat’s death and subsequent canonization as a martyr of the Revolution appears below, taken from Arno Mayer’s The Furies (2000). This is then followed by several hilarious, more recent parodies of David’s painting. I’ve already stated on numerous occasions that art is, for all intents and purposes, dead. So it should come as no surprise that The Death of Marat itself would itself fall victim to the death of art. Enjoy.
The death of Marat
Had it not been for the rising storm [of Terror], the assassination of Marat, on July 13, 1793, the eve of the fourth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, most likely would have been an isolated and harmless bolt of political lightning. But with the turbulent weather, Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d’Armont’s fatal deed touched off a political firestorm. In death even more than in life, Marat lent himself to being at once apotheosized and demonized — as the incarnation of good or evil, light or darkness, virtue or vice, purity or impurity.
Disenchanted with the Revolution, Charlotte Corday claimed that by killing Marat she meant to “avenge untold innocent victims” as well as “save thousands of lives…and prevent many other disasters.” When the judges, before sentencing her to death, asked whether she “thought she had slain all the Marats,” she replied that with “this one dead, all the others will be put in fear.”
Almost instantly Corday was both excoriated and extolled as the arch-avenger. One of the revolutionary papers reported that on hearing of Marat’s assassination, several women exclaimed that death by guillotine would be “too mild for such a heinous crime” and vowed to “cut up and devour the scoundrel who had deprived the people of their best friend.” After noting in Père Duchesne that to curse Corday was to “fire the people’s vengeance,” Hébert likewise insisted that to “fit the crime” the punishment would have to be “more terrible and degrading than death by guillotine.” As for Charlotte Corday, on being turned over to the Abbaye prison, she apparently feared “that the people would tear her limb from limb.” She did not breathe easier until she thought she stood fair to be “beheaded by the guillotine, which would be a gentle death.”
There was, indeed, considerable apprehension that an overwrought crowd would once again invest the Abbaye prison, this time to touch off an uncontrollable massacre with the vindictive slaying of Marat’s assassin. At the Convention several deputies, worried that a popular “clamor for vengeance” would set off “a terrible explosion,” urged citizens to remain both calm and vigilant at the same time that they reassured them that they “would be avenged.” Likewise François Hanriot, the hardline commander of the capital’s national guard, simultaneously approved the cry for vengeance and stressed that “the best way to keep in check the aristocracy was to trust and support our courts of law.” Presently even the firebrand Hébert sought to calm the atmosphere, insisting that “the day of vengeance was not yet at hand” partly because Paris still needed to persuade the provinces that the capital was not “a city of cannibals.”
In the meantime, at the main Jacobin club there was a move to enshrine Marat, the martyr of liberty, in the Pantheon. But Robespierre objected, contending that by giving people a false sense of “redress,” such a spectacular homage would assuage their “thirst for vengeance.” On July 15 a delegation of the Society of the Men of August 10 came to the Convention to “demand that Marat be avenged” rather than given “the honors of the Pantheon,” not least because he was, in any case, assured of a “permanent Pantheon in everyone’s heart.”
By this time several bards of the Revolution were entrusted with planning a solemn funeral rite for Marat. It stands to reason that the iconoclastic intelligentsia, including the unbound artists of the new order, should have turned to celebrating and commemorating the Revolution’s major events and heroic leaders or martyrs. In this way they hoped to challenge and replace the resplendent public ceremonials of the ancien régime. Jacques-Louis David is emblematic of these self-conscious activist illuminati who came forward to assist in laying the foundations for a future full of promise. An early partisan of reform, he was radicalized by the force of circumstance. With time he became a fervent champion of the nascent republic and Jacobin patriotism. David was elected one of the capital’s deputies in the National Convention and eventually served on its Committee of General Security. He had a sympathetic understanding for Robespierre and Marat, with whom he consorted off and on.
David emerged, of course, as not only the peerless painter-artist of the Revolution but also its master metteur en scène. Characteristically he idealized and ideologized one of the Revolution’s grand founding events in The Oath of the Tennis Court, his first and arguably one of his most compelling historical paintings, started in mid-1790. No less exemplary, David was the guiding spirit of the ceremonial transfer of Voltaire’s ashes to the Pantheon in June 1791. This sober and grandiose funeral procession, partly mimetic of yesterday’s religious prototype and featuring Greco-Roman imagery, was staged to symbolize and herald “the victory of reason over superstition, philosophy over theology, justice over tyranny, tolerance over fanaticism.” David was responsible for the overall “organization” and “decoration” of this and several later public rites, while François Gossec and Marie-Joseph Chénier provided, respectively, the music and lyrics.
David does not seem to have had a hand in conceiving and staging the cavalry of Louis XVI — procession, execution, burial — on January 21, 1793, which was designed to consummate the king’s profanation as a symbol of monarchy while diligently precluding his living on as a martyr. Indeed, David’s calling and vision was to construct, represent, and memorialize heroes, not anti-heroes; martyrs, not demons. Nowhere was his revolutionary commitment more intensely tested and expressed than in his orchestration of the funeral of Jean-Paul Marat and his martyr painting of this uncommon revolutionary. A few months earlier David had experimented with new techniques of funeral pageantry and iconography in rendering honor to Michel Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau. As deputy from Yonne, this aristocrat had voted the death penalty for Louis XVI. In revenge for this apostasy, Lepeletier was mortally stabbed by a former royal bodyguard. David arranged for his semi-nude corpse, with its fatal wound unhidden, to lie in state on the Place Vendôme preceding a memorial service on the floor of the Convention. Shortly thereafter David captured the atmosphere and message of the ceremony in his painted exaltation of Lepeletier. In every respect, Lepeletier’s apotheosis prefigured Marat’s.
Knowing Marat personally, David was all the more pained by his assassination and disposed to give his all to assure that Marat be given proper homage. Under his direction, by the evening of July 15 Marat’s embalmed body lay in state in the erstwhile church of the Cordelier monastery, the meeting place of the Jacobin club bearing that name. The corps rested on a bier “lined with flowers and draped with the tricolor.” His head graced with an oak crown, Marat’s body was wrapped in a white sheet, giving bold relief to his red chest wound, which was in plain view. Two stones, presumably relics from the Bastille, were set at the base and front of the bier, carved with the rousing epitaph: “Marat, L’Ami du peuple, friend of the people, assassinated by the enemies of the people. Enemies of the people, temper your glee, for he will have his avengers.” Dignified by the participation of the full body of the Convention, the funeral procession of July 16, likewise designed by David, was of a piece with the mood and purpose of this mise en scène. Marat’s body, with its prominently displayed stigma “pointing up the wound inflicted on the Republic,” focused the outcry against the Revolution’s “ubiquitous” domestic and foreign enemies at the same time that it provided an eloquent human relic on which to swear vengeance. Even if unintentionally, to instrumentalize the corps meurtri was to “generate emotions, designate enemies, feed vengeance, and exalt the martyr.” The rite exorcised uncertainty and fear as much as it fired revolutionary zeal. In this way, the commemoration of the popular idol enabled the revolutionary elites to combine their spoken discourse with a language of images and gestures accessible to the lower orders who were remote from the high culture of oratory and letters.
This was the atmosphere in which David turned to paying pictorial homage to Marat as he had to Lepeletier. Indeed, he invested this second memorial portrait with the same rhetoric as the first. David executed the two paintings while intensely engaged in revolutionary politics on the Jacobin side. In both silent poems or painted sculptures “death and violence are…the spiritual center,” along with selfless “suffering” and unrequited “pity.” David exhibited the two paintings in his atelier until November 1793, when the Convention asked that they be hung on both sides of its presidential chair (which he himself eventually occupied briefly in January 1794): to the left Lepeletier, next to a tablet with the Constitution of 1793; to the right Marat, next to a tablet with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Two months earlier, when presenting The Death of Marat — probably his “masterwork” and possibly the “greatest political painting of all time” — to the Convention, David had told his fellow deputies that he had answered the people’s call to once again “take up [his] brush” and “avenge our friend, avenge Marat.” He offered this “homage of his brush, …Marat’s livid and bloody features” serving to recall “his virtues…to [p]osterity, which will avenge him.”
The purpose of Marat’s instant apotheosis was less “to establish a cult” than to forge a “rallying cry” to divert popular rage into government channels. There is a transparent connection between, on the one hand, the intensification of the push for vengeance by the spontaneous and calculated cathexis on Marat and, on the other, the clamor for an official policy of terror. Of course, the emergency regime kept hardening in the face of intractable domestic and foreign difficulties as well as under the pressure of true believers and militants. In July and August 1793 the anti-revolution continued to spread in the Vendée and Lyons was swinging out of control. Although republican forces reclaimed Marseilles on August 25, British and Spanish troops entered Toulon with the help of a local fifth column on August 27-28. In the meantime, on August 1 Valenciennes had fallen to the Austrians. The adoption, on July 26, of capital punishment for hoarding was a sign that the economic and financial situation was still critical.