by Reed Venrick
Within the hour of the crime, an out-
of-breath-messenger boy banging on
Jean-Louis Da-vid’s door. Even
brought along the blood-stained
letter that the assassin wrote. But
say what? Who was Charlotte Corday?
A woman living out her revolutionary
zeal so strongly, so naive, believing
that if she stabbed a writer of Jean-
Paul Marat’s renown that she would
make the world a better place in 1793.
Such was the fervor and zeal of a time
and place in France when people
rampaged the street—disgusted by royalty
and aristocracy and privileges of nobility,
an era when the hungry and the angry
stormed the prisons and broke the locks
of farm warehouses which stored barley
And grain and and ground it down with pestles
for all to eat, as they yelled: : “Fuck
the apathetic king and to hell with his
Austrian queen! For a change, let them
bake their royal cakes with chaff! For
what did Montesquieu say? There must
be separation of power in future government.”
And the painter Da-vid rushing down the broken
brick of that Parisian street, knowing he
would find Marat dead in his bathtub,
where Da-vid had visited just days before,
but even as he ran, visualizing how a dead
man knifed in the chest would lie limp
and soaked in his own blood. Da-vid, running
with a crazed mind, trying to imagine the chaos
of the revolution, yet already the picture
was forming in Da-vid’s mental frame how a
dead man might lie low and slumped in a tub
of bath water with a rusty knife in the chest.
The flowing light! Da-vid visualized in a flash.
The light must not be harsh. No, that would be
A mistake, the light must not glare. Yes, make
the light diffuse from a window, make the light
glow—like the ambience in Caravaggio’s
“Entombment of Christ.” Yes! Allow the right
arm to hang down in sorrow but powerful in
tranquility. Not too much blood flowing in the water,
for that could turn the harmony of an historic
“mise a scene” into only a display of horror.
Yet how does an artist position a dead man’s
head? Not with the face hung forward, no,
for a spectator in future generations could
not see the zeal and sincerity that Marat
had in his beatific face, nor must the hair be
Neatly combed back, as if it were in a normal state.
Had Marat not often worn a bandana around
his forehead with the cloth soaked in vinegar?
So why not turn Marat’s face to the side?
Yes, draw the face sideways, leaning on his arm,
as if he had merely gone to sleep. The dead
man’s eyes must be closed eyes and positioned
vertically, while an observer gazes horizontally
into the frame. Therefore, before Da-vid would paint
to finish during those hellish days of summer, 1793,
he knew he would make a painting that would shape
an era’s style, even change the historical paradigm.
After those who lived through the revolution were long
dead, here was a painting that showed the idealism
of Marat’s words, but also the knife that showed
The blood of what the revolution had become.
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