The Creation of a Martyr: David’s Death of Marat and Great Man History

Media outlets are often accused of partisanship and interest groups run video ads but the kind of direct relationship between the artist and politics is usually seen as one of commentary rather than true propaganda in the modern context. However, before the advent of new technologies the mediums of the artist and the medium of political messaging often overlap. Oil paintings are no longer a primary means of dispersing propagandistic messages but during the French Revolution, as well as in the centuries before, fine art was a viable medium for dispersing political messages. And like the oil painting Thomas Carlyle’s Great Men of History theory is part of an academic culture that has come and gone. But propaganda never represents the true extent of the historical period it comes out of and in the case of Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat painting the narrow focus of Carlyle’s theory and David’s message overlap.

David’s The Death of Marat is an ode to propaganda, not only was it painted to rally people around the death of a prominent revolutionary figure, but that figure was also part of the propaganda machine. Marat was a printer who was killed in part because of what he printed, and David includes this aspect as a central part of his painting. The corpse of Marat as David depicts it is still clutching the letter that was used to gain his assassin access, the letter that requested his protection is shown alongside the papers of Marat’s regular work. By celebrating Marat as a revolutionary hero David is also celebrating the revolutionary propagandist. David himself had, or at least developed, an understanding of the power of propaganda when he was thrown in prison during the later part of the revolution before eventually becoming a painter for Napoleon. The Death of Marat painting is a masterwork that captures the place of propagandists in David’s experience of the French Revolution and the depiction of Marat is tailored to reinforce this perception with the viewer.

Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man theory is now a theory of the past that has been set aside for a more comprehensive view of history, but its framework is useful when considering a work like David’s Death of Marat. The current view of history is much more complex with its consideration of social context, but great man theory does apply well when examining the ways in which martyr figures are used in propaganda. The idea of the martyr is that they have died in service of some great cause and propaganda often celebrates these figures as essential to that cause: asking the viewer to step up and fill the revolutionary shoes of the person who died. This is the kind of emphasis on  single person that the is central to Carlyle’s understanding of history which rests on the shoulders of individuals of extraordinary ability. So, while Great Man theory may be an idea of the past in terms of history it is a view which can be easily applied to David’s painting of Marat following his death during the French revolution.

Beyond David’s choice of which figure to depict, his neoclassical style continues to reinforce Marat’s position as a great hero of the revolution. Marat is shown in his bath because he had a skin condition that forced him to spend a great deal of time in the water resulting the unusual location of his death, but that disfiguring condition is not at all visible in David’s painting. Instead the body is shown as smooth and almost marble like, harkening back to the statues of antiquity. So, while the David doesn’t change the location of Marat’s assassination, he does refuse to depict the reason that the printer was at work in his bath. Instead the smooth appearance associates Marat with the heroes of the classical world who were the subjects of other, older, works. It is not just the representation of Marat that creates the neoclassical feel, David has also chosen to place the bath and table in an otherwise empty formless room. Rather than the elaborate backgrounds of other contemporary styles like rococo there is just a smooth grey expanse behind Marat, softer in the top right to add dramatic lighting. David’s Marat is a fallen hero who’s surroundings are far less important than the fact of his death and the viewer’s attention is focused on Marat because of the way David staged the scene.  The propaganda of this painting comes not just from Marat as a martyr of the revolution but also through how David associates his subject with the ideals of classical heroes – the great men of history who were still celebrated during David’s time.

Carlyle’s interpretation of history may have been abandoned in the actual study of history, and rightly so, but the narrow focus on singular heroes fits with many of the strategies of propaganda. David’s Death of Marat painting is a propaganda piece that sets up Marat as a martyr of the revolution in order to further its ideals. Not only that but Marat was involved in the revolution as a printer and as such he was a part of the propaganda machine. This is the kind of singular individual effort that Carlyle is trying to capture in his theory and while Great Man History is restrictive and rather elitist it is the view of history that results in paintings like The Death of Marat.  Looking at pieces of propaganda often times hides the way history actually happened, but it does show the ways in which those in positions of power wanted their work to be viewed.

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