The death of Marat
von Stefan Havlik
From agitator to hero – “The Death of Marat”
„Bürger, das Volk fordert seinen Freund zurück…es rief nach meiner Kunst…: David! Nimm deinen Pinsel, rief es, räche unseren Freund, räche Marat!“
Am 14. November 1793 spricht Jacques-Louis David diese Worte als Abgeordneter im französischen Nationalkonvent – und als der Maler des Gemäldes, das seinen ermordeten Freund zeigt: Jean Paul Marat, Arzt, Physiker und während der französischen Revolution zum Journalisten geworden.
Jacques-Louis David, born in Paris in 1748, represented motifs of antiquity and Christian saints as a royal court painter during his first creative period – which also enabled him to spend several years in Rome as a scholarship holder. “Nothing in the world is as powerful as an idea whose time has come” Victor Hugo once wrote – the artist David also let himself be carried away by the ideals of the revolution in France, became a fervent supporter of the idea that the old, the power of the king, the nobility, the church, must be ended once and for all and the new age must now be shaped. As a Jacobin and a member of the “Security Committee”, he was one of the decision-makers of the revolutionary years, but the overthrow of his ally Robespierre also meant the end of his political activities.
Only after several unsuccessful attempts did Corday reach Marat, whom she had initially suspected at the National Convention. Suffering from a serious skin disease, which Marat himself attributed to his prolonged stays in the Paris sewers during the struggle against the old system, the journalist of the Revolution, however, retreated for hours into the bathtub of his apartment. It was there that Corday met him: first, as she herself reported during her trial, she gave him some names of girondists whom she accused of high treason. When Marat had eagerly noted down all the names and immediately promised her that all those named would be executed shortly, Corday stabbed him so deeply and violently that only the wooden handle of the knife protruded from his chest. Marat succumbed to his injuries within minutes. “Five or six hundred noble heads were chopped off and gave you peace and happiness,” he once admonished the people in his own newspaper, “a false humanity paralyzed your arm and held back your beating, it will cost us the lives of millions of your brothers. Instead of the guillotine, as was the case with many of his comrades-in-arms, Marat’s life had now come to an end by the stabbing of a lady.
On October 16, the year of Marat’s death, however, a large procession accompanies the painting created for the memory of the revolutionary to the Louvre, from where it is transferred to the meeting room of the National Convention after a few weeks. Marat, depicted in the last moments of his life, shows clear similarities in his friend’s work with the depictions of Jesus at the Deposition of the Cross or with the Pietà – no coincidence, but rather the artist’s recognizable will to make the death of one of the most radical agitators of the Revolution a tool of propaganda. Revolutionary France had to defend itself against opponents from outside – in the form of numerous neighbouring states – but also against those from within, and from the political painter’s point of view, such a death could only be used to strengthen and radicalise the ideology that now rules.
According to contemporary reports, Marat had a view from his bathtub of a large map of France on the opposite wall: the revolutionaries’ urge to radically transform this country was increasingly turning into a reign of terror, which finally destroyed itself. “That I am very unhappy is enough to have a right to your goodwill” – Charlotte Corday had written these words down and handed them over to Marat as a letter a few moments before the assassination. David had literally adopted this formulation in his painting. The search for happiness for the many of the people had indeed been followed in the brutal reign of terror of the Jacobins by the misfortune of thousands and only a very limited period of benevolence for the few.