I’m excited to say that I started taking Survey of Western Art and Architecture yesterday. I’m looking forward to refreshing my memory of (and learning more about) western art history as well as applying a more critical eye to works of art and participating more in discussion of the work.
One of the things I really found interesting in the first class was discussion of the portrayal of Charlotte Corday in paintings of the assassination of Marat. A lot of you are likely familiar with this painting:
This is a very well known piece by David, a neoclassical artist as well as an active supporter of the French Revolution. I’ll freely admit that although multiple teachers in multiple classes (both history and art) have taught the subject of this painting, it’s never really stuck until now. Marat was one of the leaders of the revolution. Very controversial in his tactics, he was recognized as both an influential, passionate orator and a violent, dangerous figure. Charlotte Corday believed him to be the latter. She felt that his aggressive actions in pushing for revolution would lead only to a regime filled with violence and death. Because of these beliefs, Corday sent Marat a letter claiming to have information useful to the revolution, gained access to his quarters, and then stabbed him in his bathtub.
What interests me is the variety of ways artists depict Corday. Notice how Corday is not included in David’s image. She’s represented instead by her letter to Marat, clutched in his hand.
Why is this? Corday was very much a part of the event. She was central to what happened. So why would she be excluded from the image?
My teacher presented a number of explanations for her exclusion. As a supporter of the revolution and of Marat, David was asked to paint this portrait following his death. And as a supporter, he depicted Marat as a martyr. Notice the soft light washing over Marat’s figure in comparison to the harsh light falling upon Corday’s note. See how Marat looks peaceful and healthy in death, although truthfully he was often violent and suffered from a malady of problems (which led him to take hours long baths, explaining why he was in the tub when he was assassinated). Marat is presented as someone innocent, someone graceful and elegant even in death. If Corday was included in this image it would detract from Marat’s importance. But not only would it distract from Marat, it would highlight the fact that someone, a woman, disagreed with Marat’s views. And how could a woman be so against Marat’s viewpoints that she would murder him? It went against the revolution’s very idea that women should be in the home, raising perfect little patriots. If a simple woman (let alone a purportedly beautiful woman) disagreed with Marat then why shouldn’t others?
And of course, as my teacher said, “David, not a feminist”. David felt that women were unimportant and didn’t want to depict one in a position of power in his work. We see this in other images of his, such as The Oath of the Horatii, in which he depicts men as sturdy, strong, and brave, while women are weak and weeping, all slumping curves compared to the men’s determined and powerful lines. Not to mention how the women physically take up far less space than the men. They’re presented as much smaller in stature and take up only 1/3 of the painting.
But back to Corday. My teacher compared David’s Death of Marat piece to this:
This image presents Corday as the focus. She may be in the corner, with a somewhat worried expression on her face, but she is definitely a participant in the event. You look at Corday first and then you notice Marat, slumped in the bathtub. There’s an interesting flipping of perspective here. In David’s painting Marat is the graceful, angelic martyr. In Baudry’s painting it’s Corday, pictured as sweet and beautiful, someone who could not be guilty of murder for no good reason.
Take a look at some other paintings depicting Corday’s assassination of Marat:
Some focus on Marat, some focus on Corday. Some depict Marat as at peace, contorted with pain or anger, with Corday facing outrage, fear, and violence. Many depict Corday as frightened but others depict her as brave, or even indifferent. As you can probably tell, paintings of this event run the gamut, and the event seems to have remained an inspiration for artists for quite a long time. I wasn’t able to find any pieces depicting the assassination by women artists, but I would be very interested in seeing some. I’ll keep an eye out and update this post if I find any.
Thanks to my art history professor, Sarah Thompson, for discussing these issues. Most of the commentary here is based on things she spoke about in class (In only an hour and a half we covered a lot of ground!).
Any thoughts on the depiction of Corday in artwork?