Given the number of prominent people who were killed during the French Revolution, it seems more than a little odd that its most famous death was the murder of a Swiss political thinker and journalist by a French woman from the minor nobility. When Charlotte Corday plunged her kitchen knife into the chest of Jean-Paul Marat on 13 July 1793, she can certainly have had no idea how many times that event would appear in paintings.
Marat himself appears in several paintings, but it is perhaps Lucien-Etienne Melingue’s portrait of 1879 which is most relevant here. It shows him in the role of a great thinker and intellectual, reclining in bed, about to write with his quill.
He was a leading member of the Revolutionary movement, an influential journalist through his newspaper, and a friend of the artist Jacques-Louis David, who had become embroiled in Revolutionary politics. Because of a severe skin disease, Marat spent much of the time in a bath to ease the intense itching.
On the morning of 13 July 1793, Charlotte Corday, a young woman from Normandy, turned up at Marat’s house in Paris, asking to see him; his fiancée turned her away. She gained entry that evening, and started to give Marat the names of some local counter-revolutionaries. While he was writing them down, she drew a kitchen knife with a 15 cm blade from her clothing, and plunged it into Marat’s chest, killing him very quickly.
Corday admitted if not boasted of her actions, and on 17 July she was executed in public by guillotine. Marat became a martyr for the cause, after his friend David had organised another spectacular funeral.
David shows Marat’s body slumped over the side of his bath, the murder weapon and his quill both on the floor, the pen still in his right hand, and a handwritten note in his left hand.
Corday’s note, shown rotated from its orientation in the painting, gives the date, and addresses itself from her to Citizen Marat. It opens with “It suffices to say that I am very unhappy to qualify for your kindness”.
This sparse and simple painting became the quintessential image of The Terror in particular, and the Revolution as a whole.
David narrowly escaped being executed along with Robespierre when the Revolution collapsed. He was arrested and imprisoned for several months in late 1794 and the middle of 1795.
Guillaume-Joseph Roques composed a very similar image in The Death of Marat, also painted straight after Marat’s death. It lacks the starkness of David’s, but is almost as effective in making its subject a martyr for the cause.
Although Corday made no attempt to flee the scene of the crime, David and Roques astutely avoid her presence. By the middle of the nineteenth century, during Napoleon III’s Second Empire, Corday’s role had been re-assessed.
Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s The Assassination of Marat, Charlotte Corday (1860) almost conceals Marat, foreshortening him into a face with a couple of arms. Corday stands powerfully over his corpse, against a large wall map of the nation. She stares resolutely into the distance, the handle of her kitchen knife still protruding from Marat’s chest.
Then, in the midst of France’s calamitous defeat during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Second Empire was swept away in favour of the Third Republic. The Paris Commune was brutally crushed, and a protracted struggle eventually put political power into the hands of moderate republicans.
Santiago Rebull’s The Death of Marat from 1875 attempts more of a balance, and from a little more distance. He gives Corday and Marat more eqaul coverage, shielding both their faces. The scene has also become more theatrical, with sweeping arms and taut bodies.
Jean-Joseph Weerts’ The Assassination of Marat (1880) looks almost operatic in its theatricality. Among the crowd pointing and waving are Simonne Evrard (Marat’s fiancée), a distributor of Marat’s newspaper, two neighbours (a military surgeon and a dentist), and Republican troops. Corday is still clutching the knife, and shrinks back against the wall, transfixed.
In the hands of others, Marat’s murder took on different meaning altogether. Edvard Munch used it symbolically to express the trauma he underwent in his disastrous affair with Tulla Larsen.
Munch’s first version of The Death of Marat (1907, above) looks down on the body of Marat/Munch from above, with a nude Corday/Larsen standing to attention next to the corpse. He adjusted the composition for the second version (1907, below), returning to a square-on view with the woman stood in front of Marat/Munch’s bed.
Corday was arrested at the scene of her crime, and made no attempt to deny or excuse the murder. She was examined three times by judicial officers over a period of three days, during which she was held in prison.
Raymond Monvoisin’s painting of Charlotte Corday in prison, completed before his death in 1870, shows her during that period, when she must have been certain of her fate.
One difficulty which continued to rankle was the fact that Corday was a woman: at the end of the eighteenth century, women, particularly genteel well-educated women, just didn’t do this sort of thing. Monvoisin reinforces that conundrum.
After she had been sentenced to death, Corday requested that her portrait be painted. For this, she chose a National Guard officer and minor painter, Jean-Jacques (Johann Jakob) Hauer, who had already apparently been sketching her as she attended court.
Jean-Jacques Hauer’s momentous Portrait of Charlotte Corday (1793) is not his only surviving painting, but is by far his best-known.
The act of painting Corday also had to be immortalised on canvas. Jean-Baptiste Bertrand’s Johann Jakob Hauer Painting Charlotte Corday (c 1860) shows Corday with an innocence and simplicity reminiscent of Joan of Arc. Given that Corday was clutching her well-thumbed copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, that seems hardly appropriate.
Emery Duchesne’s Hauer Painting the Portrait of Charlotte Corday (1880) puts Corday in a red gown ready for the guillotine, and portrays her less positively than any other of these later paintings.
Arturo Michelena’s Charlotte Corday of 1889 is perhaps the unknown gem of the works shown here. This shows Hauer at the right, work on his portrait completed just in time for his model’s execution. A jailer is preoccupied in lighting his pipe, and an executioner’s assistant right behind Corday carries the scarlet overblouse (rather than Duchesne’s red dress) she had to wear to denote her status as traitor.
By the end of the nineteenth century, it was Corday who was achieving cult status.
Although Tony Robert-Fleury’s Charlotte Corday at Caen in 1793 is undated, I suspect that it was painted in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century. The heroine is here strolling in her garden at home, near Caen, reading Plutarch as she psychs herself up to go to Paris and change history.
For Jean-Jacques Scherrer, in his Charlotte Corday in Caen (1894), Corday is a heroine who goes out to meet the crowds of supporters on a balcony in Caen, albeit before she tries to call a halt to the murderous revolution by murdering Marat in his bath.
One of the major aims of realist and Naturalist art in the late nineteenth century was to increase objectivity, at a time when the pursuit of the objective was coming to pervade contemporary thought and science. These paintings are good evidence of how many different representations can be made of the same, relatively simple historical event. Each has a story to tell, but none of their stories is the same.