The Death of Socrates


Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Click for source

Recently I had the great pleasure of attending a fantastic gallery talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The talk was devoted to a 70 minute contemplation of one of my all-time favorite paintings, The Death of Socrates, by the French artist, Jacques Louis David. (If you want to sound artsy, pronounce his last name Dah-VEED).

Our fantastic guide, Alice W. Schwarz, MMA, Museum Educator, told us that the average museum-goer spends 17 seconds looking at a painting. Thus, our 70 minutes was unusual, but it was so worth it to finally understand some of what is going on in this gorgeous 1787 painting which many consider to be David’s finest work.

You probably know the story of Socrates:  He was an Athenian teacher charged with two felonies – refusal to acknowledge the proper gods and corrupting the young.  In 399 BC  he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.  He could have renounced his beliefs or escaped but he chose death instead.

Ms. Schwarz explained what’s going on in the painting:

Socrates (age 70 and quite fit-looking) and the others are in a prison/dungeon that resembles an 18th century French prison.


Old Plato and Mrs Socrates.  My photo as are the others below.

The old man at the foot of the bed is Plato (although in real life he would have been 29 years old when Socrates died). Socrates’ wife is ascending the stairs and waving goodbye in the far background. Ms. Schwarz intimated that Socrates did not have the happiest marriage.


The saddest guy in the painting (in the red toga) is not one of Socrates’ students.  He is a young jail attendant who is handing Socrates a kylix (cup) of poison.  Notice that there are shackles on the ground and there is a red mark on Socrates’ ankle where they recently had been fastened.  Socrates has been freed so that he can walk around after he drinks a tea made from hemlock leaves.  Hemlock, a weed that only grows in areas near the Mediterranean, is so poisonous that a tea brewed of five leaves will kill a human. They allowed Socrates to walk around after drinking the hemlock in order to speed up his death.  Apparently death by hemlock is more protracted and horrible if one merely reclines after ingestion.

socrates students

The rest of the men, of various ages, most of whom aren’t even looking at Socrates, are his students. They are distraught and unafraid to express their anguish.  I think that is why I love this painting so much – it is so heartwarming to see such devotion of students to their beloved teacher.  One can only dream.


2 Responses to “The Death of Socrates”

  1. 1 Deborah Rios September 6, 2015 at 4:47 am

    I love the use of light and color by David, it indicates that although this was a picture portraying the “death” of Socrates, the meaning behind Socrates’ death was one of celebrated martyrdom. This painting was done when France was on the cusp of its revolution paving the way to enlightenment and social change by doing away with its monarchy. I get the impression that through this painting David is giving the public insight to his own political views. Since most people at the time of the revolution didn’t read, this was David’s way of conveying the sentiments of the French people during such a turbulent time.

  1. 1 The Lavoisiers by Jacques Louis David | The Dearly Departed Trackback on August 9, 2015 at 4:41 pm

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