During the second empire under Napoleon III, the popularity of history painting was at its peak. Naturalistic ideals over neoclassical and a new interest in archaeology spurred artists towards creating paintings with an ever-increasing level of historical accuracy.
The painting “Charlotte Corday” by Paul Baudry in 1860 is an example of such history painting. It is a retelling of the story of the murder of Jean-Paul Marat, just over 60 years prior, with facts and details.
Marat was a journalist patriot during the French Revolution who inflamed an atmosphere of suspicion and fear through his publication “The Friend of the People.” It was Corday who ended his incendiary propaganda by assassinating him in his bathtub, where he often resided due to a skin disease. His death was made famous by his friend and supporter Jacques-Louis David who depicted Marat as a slain martyr in his own original masterpiece, “The Death of Marat.”
David’s painting features Marat with only a few key attributes in an empty space. A spotlight falls on the victim draped in white cloth slumped over the edge of his bath. He holds in is hand a letter given to him by Corday. His other arm hangs flaccid over the side of the bath, still holding a quill. At the side of the bath is an upturned box, on top of which lies an inkwell and another letter with some money to be given as a donation. Altogether, it is a serene picture of death. In true Greek spirit, Marat is depicted with an archaic smile, caught in that last moment of life before collapsing entirely. David paints away the ruthless and antagonistic character so effectively that it leaves only the vision of loss and pity as an iconic altarpiece.
Baudry attempted to reverse everything David had shown by giving the murderer a new trial. Instead of an atmospheric space, the viewer is presented with a tiny room. All of Marat’s attributes are there, except this time, there is no idealization.
A map of France on the wall is a literal backdrop to this event, and like France at the time, everything in the room is disheveled. The light David had cast is shown to be from a window, not falling on the victim, but the assailant. It softly illuminates her in a clear cool brightness, moving over her ensemble and pale skin as they merge in and out of the dark corner.
Her expression is a sublime insinuation of the resolved conviction of her actions. With scarcely any room to move, she stands braced, staring outward, wide-eyed and defiant at an unseen mob. Her defensive posture betrays her fortitude, as she is also aware that she has just incurred her own lynching.
The viewer can feel the anticipation of the oncoming storm of hands clawing and grasping. Her own hand is still in recoil from having just plunged the knife into Marat, who no longer is tranquilly dying, but grasping at the edge of the bath.
His writing table, along with his letters, is falling into the tub. The archaic smile that David used is replaced with a monstrous grimace of agony. Instead of a limp arm dwindling over the edge of the tub, this one is flailing about, loosely pointing at Corday’s bonnet in an accusatory gesture. This is a scene that one might imagine a man in his death throws to actually look like.
Corday becomes a visual representation of the exasperated state of Paris and her own motivation for killing: back against the wall, no other choice. The viewer is placed as member of the crowd meant to pity and exonerated the vigilante for her just actions.
Baudry’s painting is one that remains entirely overshadowed by David’s legacy. In his attempt to venerate Corday, he paints a veracious portrayal of the events, but it falls short of the emotional weight David’s composition carries, and ultimately fails to rise above the documentary level. David was able to endow Marat with a near mythical status by sacrificing truth for pictorial harmony, and with that, he successfully immortalized a maligned writer, bringing visual meaning to the phrase, “sympathy for the devil.”
Drew Lantrip studied classical drawing and oil painting at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. His work is inspired by his studies of 19th century painting. His website is www.drewlantrip.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org