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“David, Not a Feminist”: Paintings Depicting Charlotte Corday’s Assassination of Marat

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:

Jacques Louis David's "The Death of Marat" (1793)

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.

Jacques Louis David's "The Oath of the Horatii" (1784)

But back to Corday. My teacher compared David’s Death of Marat piece to this:

Paul Baudry's "Charlotte Corday" (1860)

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:

Joseph Roques's "The Death of Marat" (1793)

Edvard Munch's "The Death of Marat II" (1907) (Check out the comments section of this post for more info on this piece and why it's so creepy)

Jules Aviat's "Charlotte Corday et Marat" (1880)

French School's "The Arrest of Charlotte Corday for the Murder of Jean-Paul Marat" (19th century)

Jean Joseph Weerts's "L’Assassinat de Marat" (1880)

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?

5 Comments

  1. Very interesting! Corday being eliminated from David’s painting reminds me a bit of Hilary Clinton being photoshopped out of the War Room photo: because it’s just too disturbing to the social narrative to show a woman doing something so non-feminine!

    I can’t quite tell whether Corday is present in the Roques painting or not. Is the “mostly black with some touches of color” area on the right hand side meant to be Corday with her head lopped off by the top edge of the painting?

    And what’s with Munch showing her naked, while Marat almost looks clothed despite the fact that he was in the bath?

    Reply
    • That’s a really good comparison! It’s disappointing that we still shy away from depicting women in positions of power (or from depicting women who are “non-feminine”, which unfortunately seems to be viewed as the same thing)

      The Roques picture is a bit dark here, sorry about that! I searched for a brighter version and found this. Much more clear. It explains that Roques also uses a letter as a stand in for Corday. Of course, this piece is meant to be a sort of reproduction of David’s piece, so that may say less about Roques’s intent than David’s.

      Both Marat and Corday are nude in the Munch piece, it’s just some clothing-esque shading on Marat. As for Corday’s nudity, my first guess was that it was meant to make her appear more vulnerable. But apparently Munch was romantically involved with an artist, Tulla Larsen, until a messy breakup in 1902, after which he created some pretty horrible paintings of her (until 1908). Many historians believe that Munch used Marat and Corday to represent himself and Larsen. This would explain why the event is painted with sexual overtones (Which was seriously creeping me out before. Still is, but at least I know why now), and why he relocated the assassination to the bedroom.

      Thanks for the questions! You just made me learn a lot of new info!

      Reply
  2. I really enjoyed this post! Was watching Jeopardy tonight and Corday happened to be the correct response to the final clue… I didn’t know much about her but definitely remembered the first image you showed– thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Art History Student

    Hi, I was wondering if you have any further reading etc on this subject. Thanks :)

    Reply
    • The main article I used for this post:

      Weston, Helen. Corday-Marat affair: no place for a woman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

      Good luck with whatever you’re working on, Art History Student!

      Reply

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