Robert Hopkins, philosopher, on The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
RH The painting’s appeal for me is both immediate and hard-won. Hard-won, because when I first encountered David’s work, this picture included, I found it rather awkward and contrived: both too overt in its representation of emotion, and too strident in its use of distinctive forms. Immediate, because now I feel at home with the work, it has a powerful visual appeal, one that comes without effort, every time I see it.
GB It seems to be quite an intellectual choice. Did you have an immediate sensory response to its beauty?
RH There is real sensuousness here. The motif at the centre of the work, of the two hands around the cup containing the hemlock, is enormously compelling. There is something very touching in the gesture – Socrates’s hand reaching over to embrace the fate reluctantly offered by the hand of his disciple. The pathos is amplified by the fact that neither pays attention to this central, and surely rather difficult, transaction: Socrates too busy dispelling his followers’ doubts, the disciple unable even to bring himself to look. But this is also simply a wonderful passage of painting. The hands are rendered with a delicate vigour that always compels my eye. (I’m afraid this is not something a reproduction can convey.) The way David has concentrated his painterly resources so we are drawn to the fulcrum of the action is very impressive.
GB Do you also have an emotional response to the subject matter?
RH The passage from Phaedo that David dramatises is one of the most moving in literature. David taps these well-springs of feeling, but channels it through his own classicist sensibility. The emotional arc of the story is crystalised in the striking triangular form that dominates the whole picture: tapering from the agitated, closely bunched followers on the right; through the firm, strongly directional figure of Socrates himself, to the sorrowful but resigned character of Plato at the foot of the bed. In the journey from the base of this triangle to its tip, David has given visible form to the range of emotions the story elicits, and that its characters express. The feeling is captured, but also caged.
GB Do you think of the painting as didactic? Does moral purposiveness add to its beauty?
RH It is didactic in a way: not solely or even primarily in any message its content is used to convey, but in the attitude to the proper handling of feeling embodied in its classicism. In finding visual form for the emotional development it expresses, it exemplifies the stance it encourages us to adopt: allowing ourselves powerful emotions, but only provided we retain control over them. Of course, one might be repelled or drawn by the proposal that this is our proper relation to emotions. That reaction might well influence whether one finds the picture beautiful. I am more fascinated by the message than confident how I should respond to it. But to be fascinating is at least close to beauty, even if it is also close to other, negative, qualities.
GB Is this a universal beauty?
RH In embodying emotion in form, the piece seems to me a perfect example of what some have taken to be the central goal of pictorial art. I’m thinking above all here of Susanne Langer, in her wonderful, and these days sadly neglected, book ‘Feeling and Form’. Her view is that the distinctive contribution of painting, drawing and so on to the visual arts is precisely to offer us ‘virtual forms’ the structure of which corresponds to structures in the development and interrelations of feeling. A trip to the Met to see the David also offers the opportunity to see another perfect case study for Langer’s theory: Poussin’s ‘Abduction of the Sabine Women’. However, it’s another question whether all pictorial art of any merit, or even all that the merit of which lies in beauty, achieves it by means of emotionally resonant form. So, while I think the David’s beauty is open to anyone with eyes, time to look, and patience to learn; its way of being beautiful is certainly not the only way.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
RH To be beautiful, something must at least compel our attention, and that attention must be drawn to aspects of the thing’s appearance. That’s hardly sufficient for beauty, since it’s true for other perceptually arresting properties, such as being repellent or even uncanny. And it is necessary only if we can construe the idea of appearance (and for that matter attention) very broadly, so that, for instance, even intellectual structures, such as arguments or complex ideas – which can certainly be beautiful – count as compelling attention to their appearance, in some sense or other. But the idea of compelling attention is important, I think, and one that philosophical writing on beauty has not always sufficiently acknowledged.