In The Death of Socrates he shows Socrates in his prison cell reaching out to accept the chalice of hemlock which will end his life. The painting is lit from the left and front though it is unclear where this light may be coming from since prison cells are, ordinarily, poorly lit.
Socrates himself is well lit and is the only figure dressed in white. In contrast the other figures are less well lit and are in the darker areas of the picture. This lighting effect gives Socrates a godlike quality, suggesting that though it is he who is about to die, his beliefs and principles will remain. Additionally, though Socrates is clearly an older man – thought to be around 70 when he died – he has the athletic and strong body of a younger man. This reinforces the vitality and the strength of his ideas. The open shackle on the floor, which presumably once held Socrates captive, again helps to reinforce the idea of Socrates personal freedom and the freedom which his ideas represent. An excellent use of symbolic imagery.
The vanishing point of the pictures lies just above the head of Plato who is seated at the foot of Socrates’ bed. While most of the other figures appear to be struck with grief over Socrates’ impending death, Plato’s posture implies a feeling of unhappy acceptance – his impotence unable to affect change – perhaps an acceptance that his great teacher is making the right decision to take his own life rather than flee.
The background to the picture is rather plain, much like The Oath of the Horatii and The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, other neo-classical paintings by David completed within two years either side of The Death of Socrates. This serves to focus the viewer’s attention on the characters and reminds us that it is the action and qualities embodied in the figures that are the important thing here and not the setting.
The painting was completed in 1787, two years before the “start” of the Revolution. One message the painting portrays is martyrdom. Socrates was famously a martyr for his beliefs and was sentenced to death by the Athens government. David is supporting the principle that individuals should be able to speak out and act against a corrupt or oppressive government and that freedom was the ability to think and act for yourself. In this way he was clearly a supporter of revolutionary principles.