Jean-François-Pierre Peyron (French, 1744-1814),
The Death of Socrates
oil on canvas, 39 x 53 ½ in.; 99.06 x 135.9 cm
Museum Purchase with additional funds from The Robert H. and Mildred T. Storz Trust; E. James and No, 1999.55
The death of Socrates, the fifth-century B.C. philosopher who devoted his life to the investigation of proper conduct, is one of the important themes in the history of art. He exemplified the virtues of heroic self-sacrifice and civic obedience, stoically submitting to the death sentence for alleged impiety and the corrupting influence of his teachings. At the story’s climax, Socrates calmly seizes the cup of hemlock offered to him while exhorting his followers and friends to contain their grief and meet fate with dignity.
In treating this scene, Peyron created an outstanding example of neo-classicism, realizing the ideals of antique beauty, high drama, and civic virtue that characterized Parisian art and culture on the eve of the French Revolution. A first version of his picture, a royal commission exhibited at the Salon of 1787, was eclipsed by the critical success of a Death of Socrates by Peyron’s contemporary and long-standing rival, Jacques-Louis David. Responding to David’s work, Peyron subsequently painted the present canvas, introducing a number of telling compositional changes.
Although Peyron’s reputation no longer equals that of David, his Death of Socrates testifies to his artistic genius. With great clarity and sensitivity, it conveys the scene’s emotional core and the story’s moral message. Moreover, it is carefully composed and painted with a brilliant sense for balance and harmony. Chords of saturated primary colors — yellow, red, and green, complemented by blue — sound throughout the composition and unify picture planes and figure groups. Peyron’s classical erudition is displayed in the central figure, whose features are modeled on ancient portrait busts of the philosopher. Socrates was ridiculed for his homely appearance — his short, rotund stature and his pudgy face with a large nose, protruding eyes, and receding hairline. Rather than idealizing the hero (as David had done), Peyron chose to inject this striking note of “naturalism,” which encourages the viewer’s empathy.