Great works: The Death of Marat, By Jacques-Louis David (1793)

Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

Revolutions are always such messy affairs – think of how Lenin strained every sinew to correct (or silence) turncoats, former friends... Here we are in the thick of another staging of brutal turmoil, four long years into the blood and factionalism of the French Revolution.

This painting, a species of partisan propaganda which is currently on display at Tate Liverpool, was executed by a man who could easily be denounced as a brilliant cynic. Having been elected to the National Convention as a Deputy, and then enthusiastically supported the guillotining of Louis XVI, David later accepted the role of Court Painter to a new Emperor, that sometime upstart from Corsica, and aggrandised him in a series of unforgettable paintings. But just for now, in the summer of 1793, Jacques-Louis David is a revolutionary zealot and friend to Robespierre.

Here we have the death of a secular martyr on our hands, a Swiss journalist and agitator by the name of Jean-Paul Marat. He was killed by a woman called Charlotte Corday – a fragment of her letter, to him, slightly bloodied, is held in the dying man's left hand. She too was a revolutionary – but the wrong sort.

She belonged to the Girondists and he to the Jacobins, and so, in her opinion, he had betrayed the spirit of the great cause, and the knife went in – you see it laid out, rather neatly, on the ground beside the tub, painted, smearily reddened, with such loving care.

Almost immediately, David, ever the man to seize the moment, saw in the death of his friend and fellow deputy an opportunity for political propaganda on a grand scale. The painting itself was hung in the assembly hall of the National Convention of Deputies. An engraving was made from it, images widely disseminated.

David did many paintings in the classical manner, investing figures from antiquity with vigorous new life. This is not one of those, and yet, curiously, this posed death feels classicising in its way. This is a scene of death in a hot tub – Marat was in the habit of taking regular baths to help with a skin complaint – but it could just as easily be a Roman sarcophagus wrapped, almost mummified, by Christo.

The dying man – can there be anything more helpless than a man naked in his bath? - lolls theatrically, blood streaming from his gaping chest wound. That wound sets our mind thinking about Marlowe's great line: See how Christ's blood streams from the Firmament... He is a veritable martyr to the cause. This could be a scene staged in a theatre against an austere, monochromatic backdrop.

That area of monochromatic uniformity, which consumes almost half of the canvas, brings to mind spiritual boundlessness. The fact that it is Marat, alone with his dying, ratchets up the religious intensity. A great journalist, sometime editor of a newspaper called L'Ami du Peuple, and charitable to the last in the cause of liberty, is being taken from among us.

See how his slumped right hand is still just capable of grasping his quill, which he has been using to give money to one of the needy – the note on the top of the signed crate, together with the cash, tell us that. That splintered crate, with its nails so visible, reminds us that he is a man of the people – this exemplary creature needs no mahogany writing desk!

It is a religious picture wholly lacking in overt religious iconography. The revolutionary impulse, death-dealing as ever, is religion enough.

About the artist

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris. He later studied in Italy. During the French Revolution, he was a member of the National Convention, and was responsible for feasts and public spectacles. He latter turned tail and became Court Painter to Napoleon. He died in Brussels.

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game