J.L. David’s paintings in Brussels are worth a visit.


Bruxelles is not only the formal capital city of the European Union, (for those who live outside the EU, Bruxelles houses the 2 of the most important bodies of the Union’s governance such as the Commission and the Parliament) but it also is a major city in northern Europe, whose centre is listed by UNESCO among the world heritage list.

Should you decide to go to Bruxelles do not skip a visit to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts to admire live several masterpieces, including the one we post about today: David’s “the death of Marat” also known as “the assassination of Marat”. Follow my good friend Luca Simoncello in his description of the painting and discover the reasons to go see it.

Post by Luca Simoncello (aka Luca Boerio), art expert

Today’s painting is located in Brussels at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium.
It’s a simple, medium size painting.
To me it is a fundamental painting as it reminds me of the first lecture of my high school art teacher, in the last year of my course. After that lecture I changed completely the way I look at a work of art as well the way I describe art and today I want to share with you what I was told in an autumn morning of 1992.
That teacher, who shaped me me so profoundly, was called Willy Beck and the painting he described that morning was Jacques-Louis David’s “the assassination of Marat”.

Jacques-Louis David’s “the assassination of Marat”. 1793, Bruxelles, Royal Museum of fine arts

Marat was murdered on July 13th, 1793 by a noblewoman, whose letter begging for a private talk with him, is still in his hand.
The painting is not to be felt as a “state-rhetoric” celebration, because Marat is a martyr.
He was murdered treacherously while intent on working even while taking a bath (he was used to allow himself many, due to a dermatitis).
It is an intimate and almost private depiction.

You don’t see the murderer but just the dagger used to kill him abandoned near the tub.
David wanted to celebrate and sanctify his friend Marat as a martyr of the revolution.
It is kind of a dry cry and prayer, like that of Antonio in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Marat dies pierced in his chest, while a sad smile seem to enlighten his face

David is a friend crying out the loss of a man, and he describes the scene with meticulous precision, each object tells the honesty and simplicity of the victim.
David is is a friend who comes to shout out an absence: the one of a man.
The rest of the canvas is black, as if the background was unimportant, while Marat dies at that very place where the light ends and darkness begins.
Distraught, grieved and incredulous, David cries the death of a friend, making words useless.

David’s dedication to Marat – 1793

There is a simple line in the painting that is meant to shout respect and affection: “To Marat. David.” Nothing else.
Punctuation is also controlled, thin.
We might speak about the references to Caravaggio, especially looking at the arm of Marat falling out of the tub, very reminiscent of Caravaggio’s Deposition, or about the turban that recalls Michelangelo, or the facial features that resemble a gloomy Parmigianino.

One could say that this painting contains all of it, even if there is a sense of void in it because simplicity is hold by essence.
After all, David teaches us that three words and two points are enough to speak the intensity of a bond and the honesty of a man.

The Royal Museum of fine arts – Bruxelles, Belgium

We might say that Marat dies along a thin and clear border that divides light from darkness.
After so many years my teacher’s lecture is still sculpted in my memory as a simple warning. I wrote this post but the wording is my teacher’s. In ten years from now, when I will be looking t this painting, I would speak the same words, I would use the same punctuation, because it is powerful, linear and especially because it speaks of the friendship between two men who highly respected each other.

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