“Murder most foul”, Marat & Charlotte Corday

“Murder most foul”

But equally, “History, propaganda and art”

I never cease to be amazed at the interconnections in life…. The famous painting by Jacques Louis David  ‘The Death of Marat ‘ was triggered by a murder in 1793: painted almost contemporaneously,  but we will see that it has inspired artists right through into our own era.

Charlotte Corday who was born and raised in rural Normandy  took her revenge on the system from a provincial  standpoint whilst David, full of his own opinions sought to use his talent to further his beliefs nurtured in the capital cities of Europe -especially Italy – whilst no doubt lining his pockets…. Over 300 years have passed and we still have that disassociation between urban government and rural needs and we still utilise the pen and the arts and even murder to get our point over.What also interested me about this subject is how little changes in so many ways. The French revolution came out of the differences of opinion and disenfranchisement between the Urban Parisians and the rural population, neither of which could probably fully understand each other.

History, propaganda and art have always gone hand in hand, no less in the case of the death of Jean Paul Marat. Towards the end of the 1700s France as we all know was in turmoil, the revolutionary politicians held  different views which were in the main based on class, economics and as already mentioned, regional differences; and these differences were most evident In the National Constitutional Assembly.  (So, really no change there from today then.)

In setting the scene I must refer briefly to the Assembly in France at this time : in the legislature there were 2 main factions, the Girondins (or Brissontins… The latter being named for a prominent lawyer, Jean Pierre Brissot from the Gironde) and the  Montagnards who were in the main Parisiens. At their peak, about 200 deputies in the National Convention were Girondins and their principles aspired to a free, capitalist meritocracy with personal liberty protected by law… A very laudable set of ideals: they, as I have intimated, gathered their support from the provinces whilst the Montagnards (Mountain people) drew most of their support from Paris and were much more radical. But neither of these factions could operate without the third group who held the balance of power…. Le Marais or La Plaine, from the swamps and the plain. This group were not well organised or commited – nor did they have a particular ideology. At the begining of the 1790s  they favoured the Girondins but by 1793 their allegiance had shifted to the Montagnards. Again, not unknown in modern politics….

In the Spring of 1793 the trial of Louis XVI  brought the conflict between the two major factions to a head. In January of that year with the balance of power having shifted, thanks to the Marais, the National  Convention found the King guilty and sentenced him to execution. The Girondins sought an ‘Appel au peuple’  which was defeated and denounced as a Royalist plot to save the King and the animosity between the representatives from the Parisian region and those from the provinces escalated.

The Paris sections, the Jacobin Club and the Sans Culottes, all denounced the Girondins with the outspoken Swiss journalist Jean Paul Marat leading the call for the arrest and detention of the Girondins who had, since 1791 led the revolution. They were now being declared by the Montagmards to be enemies of the revolution. In late October 1793 Brissot and 21 of his Girondin followers were tried and executed by the Montagnards.

Our villain is  shown in this original sketch and finished portrait of Charlotte Corday by a German artist born in  France, Johan Jacob Hauer, which was painted at her request a few hours before her death.


Jean-Jacques Hauer, Charlotte Corday, 1793, oil on canvas, Musée National du Château, Versailles, France


Eméry Duchesne, Hauer peignant le portrait de Charlotte Corday, 1880, oil on canvas, 242 x 222 cm, Musée d’art et d’histoire, Lisieux, France

She took the two day journey to Paris with the express purpose of killing the 50 year old Marat. It was her destiny. Charlotte Corday was born and brought up in rural Normandy. Her mother died when she was young, and she and her sister were sent to live in a convent outside Caen, where she became an avid reader and follower of politics. When she left the convent  she lived in the  town with her aunt. A  Girondin sympathiser, Charlotte was just  23  when  twenty two young Girondists were executed by the Montagmards. for which she blamed  Marat who was most certainly involved.

Jean Paul Marat was  born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and was the editor of a newspaper called “L’Ami du  peuple”, and he was most certainly acknowledged as a great journalist an activist and a radical Jacobin.


Joseph Boze, Portrait de Jean-Paul Marat, 1793, oil on canvas, 60 x 49 cm, Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France

Marat spent several hours a day submerged in a bath in the belief it would help heal a debilitating skin condition. He worked at a make shift desk over the bath and held court from it.

Charlotte Corday arrived offering to give information  about 18 Girondins:  after three attempts to get past Marat’s housekeeper she was granted access: sadly Charlotte didn’t know that Marat’s skin disease which he picked up in whilst hiding in the sewers under Paris was killing him.

The next painting is a depiction of the scene by an unknown artist with Charlotte patiently waiting whilst Marat presumably was writing details of her information,


Unkown artist, Marat and Charlotte Corday, Musée de la Révolution Française, Vizille, France

After, it would appear, determedly and calmly stabbing Marat in the chest, Charlotte remained  in the room, admitting to the murder immediately, as shown in this painting by Baudry.


Paul Baudry, Charlotte Corday, 1860, oil on canvas, 154 x 203 cm, Musée des Arts, Nantes, France

This also shows a completely different interior to the previous painting so perhaps the artists never actually saw the room?


Joseph Roques, La Mort de Marat, 1793, oil on canvas, 163 x 128 cm, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France

The most famous of the many paintings of this infamous murder is by  Jacques Louis David (10), who was a deputy in the National Convention and a Jacobin, and who by the summer of 1793 was a true zealot and a friend of Robespierre.

Jacques-Louis David - Marat assassinated - Google Art Project 2.jpg

Jacques-Louis David, La Mort de Marat, 1793, oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm, Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium

David was born in Paris and studied in Italy He was always one for the main chance and was appointed Court Painter to Napoleon, endearing himself to him with grandiose paintings of the Emperor.


Jacques-Louis David, Napoléon traversant les Alpes,1800, oil on canvas, 259 x 221 cm, Château de Maimaison, Rueil-Malmaison, France


Jacques-Louis David, Napoléon dans son cabinet de travail, 1812, oil on canvas, 204 x 125 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA

He was a friend of Marat and even organised a pompous funeral for him, elevating Marat to the status of a martyr of the Revolution.

His depiction  of “The death of Maret”, which was painted within months of the murder,  is strangely hypnotic and has  become one of the most iconic images from the  French Revolution,

There is a much quoted line of Marlowe, “see how Christ’s blood streams from the firmament… he is a veritable martyr to the cause'”.

With his classical training David dramatised the scene of death in the hot tub. He aspired to  political propaganda on a grand scale: his painting of Marat  measured 162 x 128 cm, and on completion was hung  in the Assembly Hall of the National Convention of Deputies. Engravings of the painting were widely distributed to be hung for a time  in government buildings across the country.  Marat spent much time submerged in a bath tub as we know, but David gave scene a religious intensity, with the body lolling theatrically with blood streaming from the knife and his arm slumped over still holding his quill. The crate he was writing upon also shows nails perhaps recalling the Crucificion of Christ.


One painting, above,  shows him writing on it with Charlotte Corday sitting beside the bath tub, so perhaps the note was for her?

David’s painting is very much in the Neo-classical style with its rigorous contours and sculptured forms. David was simplistic in the composition, in order to emphasise the symbolism. The paper and quill were to show him as a journalist, the knife and wound portrayed the murder, and the date and name of the murderer were added to enforce the propaganda. It is said that David ‘presents us with a carefully staged death as in the theatre, not with perfect perspective nor accurate depiction. There are no doors or windows in this set  and certainly no sign of Marat’s debilitating skin condition that I mentioned earlier.

David was in the business of idealising Marat for the Cause.This idealism is endorsed by the classical pose David has chosen for Marat’s body with the right hand and head taking opposing directions which is reminiscent of Christ being brought down from the cross. “The Descent from the Cross” by Van De Weyden  (15) is just one of many examples of this.


Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross, before 1443, oil on panel, Museo de Prado, Madrid, Spain

The muted colours he utilised, carefully rounding his form and detailing the muscle enables the body to become almost marbleised and much more important than colour. More vibrant colour Is utilised on the bath tub, side table and of course the tiny smattering of red is wonderfully understated.

The whole composition is dramatically understated. However, at the end of the day David achieved his aim: Marat’s body in a Neo classical pose, paying homage to contours and sculptured forms of that period, hints at martyrdon with the positioning of the body reminiscent of Christ and the note left for posterity naming his murderer and the date.

There is no doubt that David was an exquisite painter with ability in both colour and detail.

Many artists over the past 300 years have referred to the death of Marat and here are two, showing the diversity of the depictions.


James Gillray, The Heroic Charlotte la Cordé, upon her Trial…, 1793, print, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, USA


Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat, 1907, oil on canvas, 150 x 199 cm, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

In conclusion:   I am sure we have all been to the Place des Quinconces in Bordeaux and seen the 43 metre high Monument aux Girondins, which was designed by the Bordelais sculptor Achille Dumillatre and created by Felix Charpentier and Gustve Debrie between the years 1894 – 1902, long after the revolution.


JM, Meeting No 16, 1 May 2018


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