Study for the figure of Plato in ‘The Death of Socrates’
This is one of the final studies for the character of Plato, at the foot of his master’s bed in the painting commissioned by the painter’s friend, Trudaine de la Sablière, in 1787 (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New-York). The death of Socrates was a popular subject in the later decades of the Ancien Regime; Diderot recommended it to artists in his Traité de la poésie dramatique [Discourse on Dramatic Poetry] (1758).
Père Adry, a Hellenist, had advised David to give Plato (who in fact was not present at this scene) an immobile pose. The face, hands and feet are barely sketched, whereas the classical clothing is depicted in great detail. He combines the softness of the falling folds – in keeping with the prostrated position of the figure – with a sculptural definition of the clothing expressed through the precision of the drawing and the dynamic of the shadows. In the opinion of the Neo-Classical theorist Winckelmann, drapery was a defined means of achieving the ideal style.