Murder in the Bath: The Death of Jean-Paul Marat

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Murder in the Bath: The Death of Jean-Paul Marat
The Death of Marat, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1793, is one of the most talked-about paintings in the Louvre, and no wonder. When you look at it, what do you see? A saint-like figure, perhaps a martyr? Or a terrifying revolutionary who, stabbed to death in his bath by an unknown young woman, has met the end he deserved? In fact, there is an argument for both answers. There is only one figure in the painting, but there are three people important to the story: Jean-Paul Marat, the victim; Charlotte Corday, his 24 year-old murderer; and the artist, who, being a close friend of Marat, interpreted events in a very particular way. On July 12th, 1793, Jacques-Louis David visited his friend Marat at home. The two men talked politics in the room where Marat, who suffered from a serious skin complaint, often worked in his bath, attempting to soothe his pain. It was the very room portrayed in the painting. Both men were radical revolutionaries, leading members of the Jacobin faction who were responsible for La Terreur, the regime of terror which led to so many massacres and executions in Paris in the early 1790s. Neither had any idea of the fatal drama which would unfold in the same room the next day. As they talked, Charlotte Corday was preparing to travel to Paris from her Normandy home. When she arrived the next day, she bought a kitchen knife and went straight to Marat’s home, intent on murder. Self Portrait by Jacques-Louis David, Public Domain Turned away twice, Charlotte eventually talked her way into the house by pretending to have evidence of a plot against Marat and the Jacobins which she said was being masterminded by a rival revolutionary group, the Girondins. In fact, Charlotte was connected to the Girondins, who feared and hated the Jacobins because of their ruthlessness and cruelty. They particularly despised Marat, who as editor of a newspaper called L’Ami du Peuple, had written, “It is by violence that liberty must be established.” This made him many enemies and one, Charlotte Corday, decided to murder him. Marat’s wife showed Charlotte into the room where her husband was in his bath, having turned it into a makeshift desk by propping a piece of wood and a green baize cloth over it, just as later painted by David. Marat was very interested in the information Charlotte claimed to have and so his wife, satisfied that this was a legitimate visit, left the two alone. Almost immediately, Charlotte lunged at Marat, and drove the knife into his chest. An autopsy later revealed that the single blow had struck between his first and second ribs, reaching the heart and proving immediately fatal. Detail of The Death of Marat showing the paper held in Marat’s left hand. Painted by Jacques-Louis David. Credit: Google Art & Culture, Public Domain
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Lead photo credit : Death of Marat. Painted by Jacques-Louis David. Credit: Google Art & Culture, Public Domain

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.

Comments

  • Michael Maloy
    2021-11-04 09:53:28
    Michael Maloy
    Thanks Marian. I enjoy your lively yet brief essays.

    REPLY

    • Marian Jones
      2021-11-06 12:36:44
      Marian Jones
      Thank you for your kind comment, Michael. I am always intrigued by the history behind places to visit and things to see in Paris and it's lovely to hear that others share this enthusiasm! I have just returned from a research trip and discovered lots of interesting things!

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