Jacques-Louis David — The Death of Socrates
1787. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Painting: GoogleArtProject | Wikipedia |
The Artist: ABCGallery | ArtChive | Met Essay | Met Timeline | Wikipedia |

UnityDescribe the forms that contribute to the unity of this composition.

(look for elements and traits that repeatedly appear)
The dominating darkness provides a visual foundation for the contrasting lighter figures. The few light and rich colors jump out easily against the dark.
The figures are composed as though on a shallow stage — all is happening in a narrow, confined space — unified and contained by the wall behind them. The wall is parallel to the picture plane — we're looking straight at it — thus is fully "flat" to us, severely bounding space.
Chromatic color is predominantly warm, where chromatic color occurs. The only cool colors are very subdued — almost gray.
All of the action is bounded by a horizontal rectangle —  the figures generally fit within that contained space. Also, lighting and continuities along the leftmost figure to Socrates' arm build a wide, flat pyramid, as well — a sort of stable compositional form.

In terms of narrative, most of the figures express grief or sadness or dismay — consistently negaive emotions — except Socraties who points upward to higer values. Also, all of the figuresa re men — except a departing woman in th edistance.

(look for alignments, structures or groupings that organize parts into larger entities (gestalt))
There is a kind of pyramid or triangle structure into which the figures are arranged, create a unified mass or grouping.

VarietyDescribe the forms that contribute to the variety and dynamism of this painting.

(look for contrast of any and every kind. Look especially for similar forms that are varied in some way. Look for anomalies — patterns or norms that are broken.)

The intense light areas provide the main visual contrast — they are strong because the image is so dark overall. Socrates in particular is wearing a white robe. His flesh and the robe are well illuminated and so of a contrasting high value.
Notice the varieties of gestures and expressions among Socrates' friends. He, in particular is bold, confident and unafraid — active, lightened, and facing us.
Socrates alone is facing us, as he is also facing his death.
The illuminated action at the right is balanced by a deep-space area on the left — as friends (and Socrates' wife) depart, she looking back. That dark, but deep area offsets the shallow but active and illuminated right side.


Focal AreasWhat areas are focal areas?
Describe the forms that contribute to their graphic emphasis?

The principle of organization may be seen by the placement of the man, Socrates. He is near the center and the placement of the group is natural and balanced. His figure is well-illuminated — his torso is a broad, light shape against the dark, simple background. His figure turned fully towards us — the only figure not turning away. His distinct, open gesture contrasts with the closed, tight forms elsewhere — he is active and extended in contrast to the other passive figures. The other figures have their backs to us, or are in profile. Further, the action (subject) is that of taking the cup of hemlock (poison), and thus accepting his own execution. His left hand is raised, pointing to the eternal truths of heaven -- that which he stands for, even as he dies.
The man with the bowl in his hand is directed towards the man raising his finger directing your attention there.
Along with the other men with their faces and attention pointed towards him. These aspects help direct the eye to the main figure, reinforcing its graphic prominence. 
The background-wall has a sort of spot-light effect, leading toward Socrates. The arch on the left and the dark triangle on the right frame that directional lighting.

In David's Death of Socrates the emphasis is established by the man in the white robe pointing his finger to the sky. His body is very prominent and the only one almost completely square to the front, and because also of his emotion presented is excited and alive.
Note the carefully placed, heightened contrast of lights and darks…large areas of white and of light color are bounded by sharp, crisp edges against dark background.
Note how the other figures “disappear” when contrast is subdued.

Other focal areas include the group to the right of Socrates, the two figures to his left, as well as the figures that are leaving in the distance, framed by the arched corridor. (though arches and barrel vaults would have been strange in Classical Athens.)

Relief Areas

Relief areas are be the extensive dark "white space" that makes up the background. The walls and floors are clearly quite subdued — very little contrast or detail.

Such well-established relief areas help preserve emphasis for the main characters.

Jacques-Louis David: ABCGallery | Wikipedia | Artchive | Artcyclopedia | WebMuseum | TheMet |

We're mainly focussing on the pure formal aspects of the composition. But it to understand why David arranged his image as he did, the narrative that he's illustrating is important. The death of the Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates is presented here.

"..in 399 BCE...Socrates was tried on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: corrupting the youth and impiety.
More specifically, Socrates’ accusers cited two ‘impious’ acts:
‘failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges’ and
‘introducing new deities.’
A majority of the 501 dikasts (Athenian citizens chosen by lot to serve as jurors) voted to convict him. Consistent with common practice, the dikasts determined Socrates’ punishment with another vote. Socrates was ultimately sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid. Well-known accounts of the trial are given by two of Socrates’ students, Plato and Xenophon. The trial is one of the most famous of all time. Whether Socrates was punished unjustly is a thought-provoking and contested issue, which to this day inspires discussions about the nature and meaning of justice."

"No works by Socrates himself survive, but his pupil Plato recorded numerous 'Socratic dialogues', with his teacher as the main character. Socrates's elenctic examination was resented by influential figures of his day, whose reputations for wisdom and virtue were debunked by his questions. ( see: Euthyphro ) Socrates himself famously calls attention to his fellow citizens' annoyance at his elenchos by describing himself as the "gadfly" of Athens. Socrates' elenctic method was often imitated by the young men of Athens.
Another possible source of resentment were the political views that he and his followers were thought to have embraced. Critias, who appears in two of Plato's Socratic dialogues, was a leader of the Thirty Tyrants (the ruthless oligarchic regime that ruled Athens for eight months in 404-403 BCE), but there is also a record of their falling out."

Following his trial and sentancing, "...Socrates's followers encouraged him to flee (see: Crito), and citizens expected him to do so and were probably not averse to it; but he refused on principle. Apparently in accordance with his philosophy of obedience to law, he carried out his own execution, by drinking the hemlock poison provided to him. Socrates died at the age of 70. (See: Phaedo)." ( wikipedia )

In this scene, Socrates is having his final conversation with his students and followers. (See: Phaedo) He is being handed the cup of hemlock — poison — which is his means of execution. He will shortly drink it willingly — accepting the decision of his fellow Athenians — the jurors in his trial, thus living by his convictions to the end.

Compare this image to Leonardo's Last Supper. Both artists use very similar tactics to express similar ideas. And Neoclassical, enlightenment-infuenced Jacques Louis David was surely intending to parallel the character of Jesus and Socrates, along with the circumstances surrounding their deaths.