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Friday, January 19, 2018


Sometimes I write some tips for artists, but it occurred to me today that tips for artists are really tips for anyone who looks at art.  We can appreciate images more when we understand more of what the artist intended.  The week's prompt is "5".  I'm pretty sure everyone sees and understands 5 hash marks here.  Maybe you notice I put 5-petaled flowers in the background.  Extra points if you notice the vertical lines are also in clusters of 5.  Each element reinforces the message 5 and adds more visual interest for the viewer.

In 1793, Jacques-Louis David painted "La Mort de Marat" (The Death of Marat).  In some ways, it looks like a comparatively simple painting for David.  The image is powerful, even if we don't know the first thing about Marat.  However, this painting speaks across language barriers and our ignorance.

Forget everything anyone else has ever taught you about looking at art.  What do you see?  How do you feel?  Whatever any of the professionals tell you, how you feel about a piece of art is the final word about whether or not a painting is great or not.

Once you've acknowledged your emotional reaction to the painting, consider the points I made about my 5 brushes.  Even though I assume you don't know who Marat was, do you see repeated themes in the painting that are giving you clues?  I would guess that you notice multiple papers, ink, and quills.  Perhaps your eyes go to the large background?  Maybe you notice the drapery falls as the hero's arm is falling?  The bloody knife is on the floor while the dying man's hands hold a paper and a pen; this isn't a suicide.

Let me tell you that Marat was a radical journalist during the French Revolution.  Now what do you think?  Does it change how you feel about the painting?  I can also tell you he was an ugly man with a debilitating skin condition which caused him to wrap vinegar saturated cloth to his head while he soaked in medicinal baths.  A board was placed on the tub so he could continue writing.  Charlotte Corday, a royalist woman, stabbed him for his political activism.  She was tried and executed for the murder.

Considering Marat was a remarkably unattractive man, David gave him a hero's death.  He used the traditions of Jesus and the saints' martyrdoms for a journalist with serious and smelly health problems.  The drapery falls with the dying man's arm.  The light and shadows move forward.  So much is expressed in such a beautiful way, for a crime scene which was anything but beautiful.

For artists, this painting is also a reminder not to get too trapped by reality.  David was true to life in setting the scene by using the green cloth and the packing box by the tub, but his idealism created an image far different than an ugly man dying in a bloody tub.  We're reminded of what the man did in his life.

What do you want to convey?  How can you use repetitions of a theme to carry your message?


  1. Thanks, Linda. That was an interesting lesson. I'd never heard of Marat or the painting, and yah, I thought suicide :P.

    What I like about looking at artwork is the difference it has from other creative forms. A song, movie, play, or a piece of writing is fed to me in the order the author intended. In paintings, drawings, or sculptures, we choose what we focus on and when.

  2. I had to stretch back to my college days of Art History classes for this one, but this image has stayed with me through all those years. I count that as a sign of a good painting. You make an interesting point about how the other art forms feed us the order of our observations. Hmmm. Something to think about :)

  3. Linda, I enjoyed you talking me through the history and aesthetics of this painting. Thank you!

  4. Happy to do it. I've enjoyed the lessons you've shared too Paula!

  5. Very interesting. I'm going to enlarge the painting and have a better look...

  6. I wish I could go to Europe and see it life-sized :)

  7. An excellent analysis of "La Mort de Marat". I always love art that has more to it than just a superficial and one-dimensional expression.