At the height of his youthful popularity and enthusiasm, part of a close circle of friends (including Chernier, Lafayette and Lavoisier) who were pushing for radical political reform, David painted this unusual historical picture in 1787. Commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, leaders in the call for a free market system and more public discussion, this picture depicts the closing moments of the life of Socrates. Condemned to death or exile by the Athenian government for his teaching methods which aroused skepticism and impiety in his students, Socrates heroically rejected exile and accepted death from hemlock.
For months, David and his friends debated and discussed the importance of this picture. It was to be another father figure (like the Horatii and Brutus), unjustly condemned but who sacrifices himself for an abstract principle. By contrasting the movements of the energetic but firmly controlled Socrates, and his swooning disciples, through the distribution of light and dark accents, David transforms what might have been only a fashionable picture of martyrdom to a clarion call for nobility and self-control even in the face of death.
Here the philosopher continues to speak even while reaching for the cup, demonstrating his indifference to death and his unyielding commitment to his ideals. Most of his disciplines and slaves swirl around him in grief, betraying the weakness of emotionalism. His wife is seen only in the distance leaving the prison. Only Plato, at the foot of the bed and Crito grasping his master's leg, seem in control of themselves.
For contemporaries the scene could only call up memories of the recently abandoned attempt at reform, the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, and the large number of political prisoners in the king's jails or in exile. David certainly intended this scene as a rebuke to cringing souls. On the eve of the Revolution, this picture served as a trumpet call to duty, and resistance to unjust authority. Thomas Jefferson was present at its unveiling, and admired it immensely. Sir Joshua Reynolds compared the Socrates with Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Raphael's Stanza Della Signatura, and after ten visits to the Salon described it as 'in every sense perfect'.