Supreme art is
a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth,
passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius,
but never abandoned.
William Butler Yeats
I Believe in Marat, the Almighty
The French Revolution, 1789
I believe in Marat, the almighty, the Creator of freedom and equality,
our hope, who strikes terror into the aristocracy, who has gone forth from
the heart of the nation and is revealed in the Revolution, who was
murdered by the enemies of the Republic, who poured forth upon us the
breath of freedom, who has descended into the Elysian Fields, whence he
will one day return to judge and condemn the aristocracy.
A contemporaneous anonymous "Creed" (July 1793-February 1795)
Down with the Bastille! The destruction of the court prison, a symbol of
Bourbon despotism, 14 July 1789
Guillotine model 1792
The guillotine, the instrument of choice for
beheadings during the French
was still being used for executions this century
Between 18,000 and 40,000 people were
executed during the Reign of Terro
Satirical cartoon lampooning the excesses
of the Revolution as seen from
Jean-Paul Marat was sitting in
the bathtub when his last hour struck on 13 July 1793. A teacher of
languages, a journalist and a physician, Marat had turned out to be one of
the most radical demagogues the 1789 Revolution produced. He spent much
time in the tub to find relief from a chronic, itchy rash. He wore
compresses on his forehead to relieve headaches from which he also
suffered. While he was bathing on that fateful day, he was reading a
letter from Charlotte Corday, the great-granddaughter of the playwright
Pierre Corneille. The young noblewoman had tried in vain to gain
admittance to Marat. Now she had sent him a letter in which she slyly
suggested a tete-a-tete. He let her in and she stabbed him. Marat
Some contemporaries must have been pleased at the deed.
Marat had been a tough customer. He had had 860 gallows erected to deal
with his political enemies and had sent over 200,000 of them to the
guillotine. His opponents may have considered his death a just revenge.
His adherents, however, celebrated him as the martyr of a just cause.
Appointed master of ceremonies at the hero's funeral, painter
was a fervent revolutionary and a personal friend of Marat. He obliged by
putting Marat's corpse on canvas just as he had had it put on display:
with his bare chest and wounds visible. On 15 October 1793
presented the picture to the National Assembly. It became the symbol of
the French Revolution. Copies of it were placed on church altars,
smothered under billowing clouds of incense. Even in public offices copies
of the painting were supposed to replace Crucifixes and royal portraits.
However, before it could get out of hand, the personality cult was stopped
by Robespierre's fall and the arrest of
On 10 February the painting was removed from the chamber of the National
Assembly. Marat's heart, which had been kept in the Cordeliers Club, was
burnt and the ashes scattered in the Montmartre sewer.