In the second half of the eighteenth century Europe was captivated by the spirit of the Enlightenment. In this period, often called the Age of Reason, a number of bright and bold individuals dared to think for themselves, free from the restrictions of religion and traditional authority. In France and other countries cultural leaders like Voltaire used their clever wit to ridicule vice and superstition and at the same time to praise tolerance, democracy, industriousness, and sincere human feelings. Enlightened men and women felt confident that the human intellect by itself could solve all problems, even social and moral problems. Needless to say, a reaction set in against the irresponsible way of life of the aristocracy a reaction that eventually led to political revolution in America, in France, and in other countries, under the banner of liberty and equality.
A similar moral revolution took place in the art world. Art was now supposed to move a person's deepest feelings and teach virtue - not cater to wasteful living. Artists and critics believed that it should once again serve the nation and be good for the people, just as it had for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Classical art had depicted serious subjects in a serious way, and so late eighteenth century artists and architects deliberately began imitating Roman and Greek art. Their work became known as Neoclassicism, a new imitation of classicism that was nevertheless conscious for the first time that Roman art was one style among many different styles in history.
The leading Neoclassical painter in France was Jacques Louis David (pronounced Dah veed). His Death of Socrates shows the famous Greek philosopher in prison surrounded by his followers. Socrates is about to drink poisonous hemlock because he was condemned to death, unjustly, for his beliefs. No one in France in 1787 two years before the outbreak of the French Revolution was likely to miss the point that Death of Socrates was foremost a moral lesson in courage and sacrifice for the truth. David's painting encouraged those who saw it to stand by their convictions no matter what the consequences. By illustrating this subject, David obviously sided with many of the philosophers of the Enlightenment who also held that the human intellect, independent of the superstitions of the Christian church, could show the path to true morality and right living. A virtuous. thoughtful pagan like Socrates could set an example of martyrdom for truth and justice to rival that of any Christian saint.
David not only selected a serious subject om Greek history, he painted the story in an appropriately severe classical style. David created figures that resemble famous classical statutes, and he arranged them across the surface of the canvas as in a classical relief. The architectural background is suitably stark. To bring out the dramatic presence of the character, however, David resorted to Caravaggio's Tenebrism. He played a strong light on the precisely detailed figures and left the rest of the picture in darkness so as to sharpen the impact of the drama.
David invented his Neoclassical style with its serious moral iconography before the Revolution. He then became the leading painter of the French Revolution, reorganizing the art establishment in France, designing and directing new public festivals for the Revolution, and painting the portraits of its heroes.
- From Thomas Buser, "Experiencing Art Around Us"