A study for David’s celebrated canvas The Death of Socrates now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 1). This drawing, until now known only through its appearance in the 1889 Coutan-Hauguet sale catalogue, is an important addition to the corpus of the artist’s drawings and offers great insight into the conception of his masterpiece. The painting was commissioned in 1786 by Charles-Michel Trudaine de la Sablière (1766-1794), a wealthy conseiller in the Paris parliament.
David took his inspiration from the passage of Plato’s Phaedo recounting Socrates’ death. The philosopher (470/69-399 BC), having been convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and introducing strange gods, was sentenced to die by drinking the poison hemlock. Socrates, rather than fleeing when the opportunity arose, used his death as a final lesson for his pupils, and faced it calmly. He is seated on his bed ready to take the cup that is presented to him by a slave while he raises his left arm as if to ask his friends to remain dignified. David has represented Plato (even though he was not there in reality) at the foot of the bed, motionless and absorbed in his thought. Seated on a stool by Socrates is Crito, a rich Athenian who remained loyal to the philosopher until the end. On the right some of Socrates’s disciples make an elaborate show of their grief. In the background on the left David has lightly sketched in black chalk a staircase where a few figures congregate, including Socrates’ wife, Xanthippe.
David seems to have considered this subject for some time before he received Trudaine’s commission as there is a compositional study, in black chalk and grey wash, signed and dated 1782, now in an American private collection (fig. 2; Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 52). That early date is confirmed by the presence on its verso of two figures which are preparatory to Horace entering Rome, a large drawing from 1781 now in the Albertina, Vienna (Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 48). Recently the Metropolitan Museum acquired a sheet, also in black chalk and grey wash, which shows only minor differences from the 1782 study and which must have been executed by David not long after (Acc. No. 2013.59). Compared with these two sheets, the present lot marks a decisive evolution towards the final composition of The Death of Socrates and must have been executed not long before he started work on the canvas. If the four figures in the foreground do not differ dramatically from the two early drawings (however it should be noted that Crito's pose differs from the two earlier drawings - now has his right hand on Socrates’ thigh), David adds three figures to the group of disciples at the right of the composition. He also makes important changes to the prison cell setting. Conceived as a closed space only lit by an occulus in the two early drawings, it becomes in the present sheet a vast room with a vaulted gallery leading to a staircase on the left. David also added a lamp behind Socrates, an element which plays an important role in the rhythm of the final composition, while he eliminated a bookshelf which appears in the two previous drawings.
In addition to being an essential step in the elaboration of the Metropolitan picture, the present drawing is a fascinating document for our understanding of David’s working method. He first traces different lines of perspective and outlines in graphite the décor with the help of a ruler. He then adds, still using graphite, the figures represented naked and rapidly sketched. He returns a number of times to these figures leaving apparent many pentimenti in, for example, the position of Socrates’ legs or the arm of the slave holding the poisoned chalice. Finally, with the help of an assured pen and black ink, he goes over the contours of the figures in the positions he wants to adopt. Then he draws clothes over their nude forms. A very similar technique is evident in other overall studies for some of David’s most important compositions, like The old Horace defending his son (1782, Louvre, Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 50), Andromache mourning Hector (1782, Mulhouse, Bibliothèque municipale, op. cit., no. 61), The Oath of the Horatii (1784, Paris, Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, op. cit., no. 67), and the Serment du Jeu de Paume (1790, Cambridge, Mass., Fogg Art Museum, op. cit. no. 116). Interestingly, no study of this type survives for the paintings David executed after the Revolution. After this drawing which almost finalizes the composition David made large studies in black and white chalk on buff paper of each of the principal figures (Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., nos. 81-86).
The Metropolitan canvas, which measures 129.5 x 196.2 cm., follows almost totally the composition of the present drawing although there are a few differences. Most importantly, the man hiding his head behind Plato in the drawing is leaning against the wall, his hands raised, in the painting, and the oil lamp hanging from the gallery’s vault in this sheet is absent in the canvas. Also the positions of the two disciples behind Socrates have been slightly altered. The other figures appear virtually unchanged although their facial types have sometimes been modified, as for instance, Crito who does not wear a headband and whose beard is longer in the painting (he appears as in the present drawing in the large finished study for the figure now in the Metropolitan Museum).
Exhibited at the 1787 Salon, The Death of Socrates was enthusiastically received by critics and enhanced David’s stature as the pre-eminent artist in pre-Revolutionary France, especially by comparison with a canvas of the same subject by Pierre Peyron (now in the Staten Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen), until then David’s only rival. Trudaine de la Sablière was so satisfied with the painting that instead of paying the 6,000 livres which he had promised he ultimately gave David 10,000 livres, a very considerable sum at the time.
This drawing once belonged to Louis-Joseph-Auguste Coutan (1770-1830), a businessman and a politician who was mayor of the city of Eaubonne. He formed a remarkable collection of paintings and drawings by contemporary artists, especially David, Prud’hon, Gros, Ingres, Géricault and Bonington. In 1889 his descendants sold the collection at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris, but prior to that the Louvre was able to choose a few works which it deemed indispensable for its collections. Coutan had assembled a sumptuous group of drawings by David and the 1889 sale included no fewer than thirty lots of works by the artist, including three sketchbooks and the drapery study for the figure of Socrates in the Death of Socrates. That drawing is now in the Musée Bonnat, Bayonne (Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 83).