Art Annotations


David, Jacques-Louis
The Death of Socrates


On-Line Art
MediumArt
Art FormOil on canvas
KeywordsArt of Medicine, Caregivers, Death and Dying, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Empathy, Euthanasia, Grief, History of Medicine, Human Worth, Medical Education, Medical Ethics, Mourning, Pain, Patient Experience, Suffering, Suicide
Summary

Condemned to death, Socrates, strong, calm and at peace, discusses the immortality of the soul. Surrounded by Crito, his grieving friends and students, he is teaching, philosophizing, and in fact, thanking the God of Health, Asclepius, for the hemlock brew which will insure a peaceful death. His last words are "a cock for Asclepius!"

The wife of Socrates can be seen grieving alone outside the chamber, dismissed for her weakness. Plato (not present when Socrates died) is depicted as an old man seated at the end of the bed. The pompous "medical celebrity"--as Tolstoy might describe him, were he one of Ivan Ilyich's five consults (The Death of Ivan Ilyich, see this database)--is pontificating on his rounds about the pharmacological details of the medication.

Commentary

This is a controversial work. It is an outstanding stimulus for discussions of the "good death," physician-assisted suicide, "double effect" (reducing suffering, albeit hastening death), and the goals of palliative medicine. Clergypersons note the 12 persons in attendance (as at the Last Supper); patient groups have creative responses to the finger gesture ("flipping the bird"), and often name the "patient" as the one seated at the end of the bed, ignored by the "physician"; hospice nurses identify with the engaged caregiving and authenticity of the "executioner's" feelings and, at the same time, with the calmness and therapeutic witnessing of the figure sitting quietly at the bedside, gently touching Socrates's knee.

For relevant excerpts from Plato's "Apology" and "Phaedo"--accounts of the trial and death of Socrates--see The Healing Arts, edited by Robin Downie, pp. 219-220 (annotated in this database). For commentary on using this painting to explore moral reasoning in medicine, concepts of the appropriate death, and visual literacy, see Facing Death: Images, Insights, and Interventions by Sandra Bertman, pp. 15ff. and pp. 171-174 (annotated in this database).

Location of OriginalMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Alternate SourceBertman, S., Facing Death: Images, Insights, and Interventions (Hemisphere, New York, 1991); pg. 15; b/w.
MiscellaneousPainted in 1787.
Annotated by Bertman, Sandra L.
Date of Entry 12/30/96