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Bears inscriptions in pen u.r., 1714 l.r. & verso u.r., 10. Schellings and [in a different hand and ink] signé J.E. Marcus[?] ft. 1807 [i]

Grey & sepia washes, heightened with bodycolour with black chalk outlines

26 x 33 cm 



We are grateful to Dr Alastair Laing for endorsing our attribution on the basis of digital photographs.


The present work relates to a more finished version sold at Christie's, London, Old Master Drawings, 5.12.2019, Lot 101 (Jean-Baptiste Deshays, The Death of Socrates). That drawing can be found in André Bancel's catalogue raisonné of the artist's work (Paris, 2008, cat. no. DM.29, p.238).


There are several differences in composition between the two works; however, the overall arrangement and treatment of the subject is very close. Of these differences, the most notable is perhaps the omission in the latter drawing of the table - a so-called athénienne - to the right of the foreground, atop which sits the vessel containing the fatal berries. Crucially, we now know with certainty that Deshays created two drawings of different sizes of the subject:


"...Deshays made two of different sizes, one of which was in his own posthumous sale, and reappeared either in the shape of the drawing in the Ghendt sale in 1779 (15 Nov ff., lot 254) or in that of the Le Brun sale of 29 April ff. 1782, lot 165" (1)


To date, no painting of the subject by Deshays is known. The composition of the present work and that sold in 2019 is unlike that of the depictions of the subject by Deshays' contemporaries, among others David, Bertin, Sané, Peyron, Dandré-Bardon, Boucher and Alizard. By the 1750's the subject had become an especially popular one for French painters, with 'La Mort de Socrate' eventually being proposed as the subject for the Grand Prix of 1762. One can ascertain its degree of popularity from the fact that this was the first ever secular subject to be proposed for the Painting prize. The following year Billardon de Sauvigny published his play about the philosopher, adding to the intelligentsia's preoccupation with the theme. It is possible that Deshays was drawn to it as a result of the fashion, or of his mentor and father-in-law Boucher's treatment of the subject. One can speculate that the lack of a finished work could also be a result of his early death during this exact period. Although Deshays never realised the subject in oils, his student Jacques Gamelin copied his composition in a later painting, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne.


On the basis of the above we suggest that this work, which is unlike the majority of Deshays' studies - characterised broadly by their heavy use of brown washes and bodycolour and their loose brushstrokes - is another preparatory study, a première pensée made immediately prior to the drawing which sold in 2019. The use of black chalk is the most immediate evidence of Deshays feeling his way around the sheet and composition, before working up another version with brush and ink. This would also explain the differences between the two versions, with this (earlier) study containing several additional features: the aforementioned fatal cup of berries to the right and a wider view and a less defined background particularly. Deshays evidently decided to forego these in order to create a closer, almost more visceral view of the exact moment of the philosopher's death and of his followers' grief.




(1) Dr Alastair Laing, Francois Boucher: 1703-1770 (exhibition catalogue), Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986, pp.293-294


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