A funny thing happened during my trip to Brussels that actually fully justified the time and expense, and it was a complete surprise. Towards the end of my visit to the Ancient Arts Museum, I stumbled into a room in the back which housed several French paintings. Almost ignoring it completely, I did notice they had a few by Jacques-Louis David, the preeminent painter on the French Revolution and Napoleonic era, and I quite like his work.
Having visited his large format works at the Louvre several times over, including The Coronation of Napoleon and The Oath of the Horatii, I was curious to see what was on display here, a Beligium museum. And there it was, his most beautiful work, my favorite painting ever, The Death of Marat. I used to think this painting hung in the Louvre but I could never find it, so I researched where it was housed, yet did not remember that it was in Belgium (a result of the artist having lived and died there post-exile from France.) So there I was, 30 minutes before the museum’s close, spending it with what I consider to be one of the most beautiful images ever rendered on canvas. Quelle chance!
I first learned of this painting while in college, in Art History 54, which surveyed art from the late 19th-century to the present. In fact, this was the very first work shown and discussed, and the professor considered it to be the first example of “modern” art (later confirmed by Wikipedia!) Though the painting depicts Marat, a prominent figure of the French Revolution, just moments after his murder at the hands of royalist Charlotte Corday, I was mesmerized by the serenity of the subject and the simplicity of the composition. The image has stayed with me for years, and I often look it up on the web just to remind myself how powerful it is.
I especially love his face, which I always thought so peaceful, that in the moment of his death the hint of a smile seemed to indicate he was satisfied with his life. But on closer inspection, in person, perhaps he didn’t look so placid?
There appeared to be more unrest, that maybe he was disrupted mid-thought. He was a journalist, wielding his pen to incite action and violence in support of the Revolution, so most likely he was authoring another essay on the subject. Placid or consumed in thought, there was a conviction, again a satisfaction I discern, of a man of principle guided by his unwavering beliefs.
Though the painting is quite simple, the details are astounding. The arm captures light and shadow so astutely, I had to know how it was done.
It’s tough to make out in this photo, but the light effect on his bicep appears to have been achieved with touches of ochre and gold-flecked paint. In addition to adding light, it also imparts a statuesque quality to the figure.
One last detail serves to disrupt the austerity of the composition, the blood stained letter in his hand. This apparently contained notes from the interview he was conducting with Corday, who arrived at his home under false pretenses to air her grievances, which he documented.
Soon it was closing time and alas I had to bid Marat adieu. I was surprised that what many consider a masterpiece and the advent of modern art was relegated to such lowly status in the back room of a Belgian museum, but the serenity and austerity of the room matched that in the painting. While hordes of tourists gather at the Mona Lisa and other famous works, I will always have a very personal and private memory of a different sort of sly smile.