The Death of Socrates, 1787. Jacques Louis David. Oil on canvas. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931.
The Athenian courts executed the Greek philosopher Socrates (469–399 B.C.) for the crime of impiety: his behavior toward the gods was judged to have been irreverent, and he had exerted a corrupting influence on his young male followers. Socrates declined to renounce his beliefs and died willingly, discoursing on the immortality of the soul before drinking from the cup of poisonous hemlock. In a prison of unrelieved severity, David depicted a frieze of carefully articulated figures in antique costume acting out in the language of gesture the last moments of the moral philosopher’s life. Because, shortly before the onset of the French revolution, the painting gave expression to the principle of resisting unjust authority, it is among David’s most important works. The canvas is also his most perfect statement of the Neoclassical style.