An analysis of the Death of Marat painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1793. Oil on canvas, 65” x 50.5”, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
1. Note your first impression of the image in terms of an idea or feeling.
My first impression is one of dramatic finality. My eye drops swiftly to the words written on the crate at the bottom right-hand side of the painting,” À MARAT, DAVID.”
2. Note the orientation and shape of the picture plane.
The artist has chosen a vertical rectangle, which causes the eye to move in a predominantly vertical direction. In this case my eye follows the light, which spills into the interior scene from the upper left down into the lower right. The final illuminated crate in the lower right corner of the picture repeats the shape of the picture plane thereby reinforcing the downward direction of the overall movement.
3. Follow Your Eyes to identify the focal points along the visual path over the surface of the picture plane.
As noted above, my eye follows the light spilling into the scene and arrives at the text, À MARAT, DAVID, (1) which by its very nature gets our attention and invites reading, “to Marat, David.” Perhaps the light vertical edges of the crate seen against the dark shadows reinforce the dramatic plunge to the floor. Conspicuously illuminated among the darkest shadows left of the crate is the small, vertical, and slightly curved body of a quill pen (2), which points downward and is barely in the grasp of Marat’s hand. The point of Marat’s pen is intersected by the bottom edge of the sheet. The edge creates a slight lateral movement, a detour if you will, to the slim, ivory handle of the murder weapon, a knife, (2a) on the floor to the left.
The curve of Marat’s arm draws my eye in an arc upward, which is paralleled by the deeply shadowed vertical folds in the sheet, one of which falls in line with that of the dripping blood, leading my eye up Marat’s chest to the puncture wound just below his clavicle near his shoulder and on to his face (3). In the case of figurative art, we tend to seek out the faces of figures, because these are the configurations of shapes that we instantly recognize and have had the most meaning for us since birth.
My eye then follows the strong value contrast between the dark background and the light skin of Marat’s arm across to the brightly illuminated letter (4) still in the grasp of his hand. Again, because of the power of recognition, my eye then notices the similar but smaller hand-written notes, inkwell, and quill pen atop the crate just below the letter (4a).
The entire scene exists in the shallow space of foreground. The lack of deep space in this composition suggests the immediacy of this event. The murder has taken place only moments ago, as indicated by the letter and pen still in Marat’s grasp.
5. Identify the visual path and interpret the configuration, as well as information revealed at the focal points.
My eyes made an initial downward arc to the bottom-right of the picture plane. It would be very easy to stop right there, had David not created three more very strong focal points: Marat’s hand-held pen (2), head (3), and hand-held letter (4). These focal areas create a visual path in the shape of an inverted irregular triangle, which is very unstable. It is dynamic, to be sure, and balances precariously on its bottom point.
Our interpretation? David intended to convey that Marat’s life and his death rested precariously on the point of his pen. The extreme downward motion of the composition relates to Marat’s sudden fall—his death—and the finality of it.
6. Check your interpretation against your initial impression.
As you can see, my initial interpretation has not changed, but has been deepened by considering the compositional strategies David employed to tell us something meaningful about Marat.