THE DEATH OF SOCRATES (c.1760's)
Bears inscriptions in pen l.r. 1714 & 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 / 10.5 x 13 in | 48 x 56 cm / 19 x 22 in (framed)
With Morland Fine Art, London [as Veneto School, Late 18th Century Scene]
Dorotheum, Vienna, Master Drawings, Prints before 1900, Watercolours, Miniatures, 10.4.2019, Lot 126 [as French School, Late 18th Century]
We are grateful to Dr Alastair Laing for endorsing our attribution on the basis of 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, sold for £7,500, see image 6 for a reproduction). 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 (see image 5 for a comparison of the two). 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 brushtrokes - 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.
Jean-Baptiste-Henri Deshays was born in Colleville, near Rouen, the son of a minor Rouen artist, Jean-Dominique Deshays. After studying briefly with his father, he spent time with Jean-Baptiste Descamps at one of the schools the writer had founded, the Écoles gratuites de dessin. He spent a period in Hyacinthe Collin de Vermont's studio in Paris from c.1740-1749 and then Jean Restout the Younger's (a native of Rouen) studio, from 1749-1751. Both of these artists had studied under Jean Jouvenet, an exponent of grand French History painting.
As a student in Restout's studio, Deshays entered the Prix de Rome, winning second prize in 1750 (with Laban giving his daughter in marriage to Jacob), and then the first prize a year later (with Venus scattering flowers on the body of Hector). As a result Deshays entered the Ecole des Eleves Protégés for three years, studying under Carle van Loo, where he completed several religious commissions, particularly two large works for the Monastery of the Visitation in Rouen. At the end of this period Deshays travelled to Rome at last and spent four years under Charles-Joseph Natoire at the French Academy there. Benezit states that Deshays also spent time in the studio of Francois Boucher; whether he did or did not, upon his return from Rome to Paris, Deshays married Boucher's eldest daughter. Shortly after this he was elected an Academician in Paris, and in 1760 was appointed an adjunct-professor. Unfortunately Deshays died prematurely, leaving behind only a small body of finished paintings and drawings. It is possible therefore that this drawing and the other known version of the subject were for a painting that he was working on in the final years of his life.
Today, works by Deshays can be found in a number of important public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the British Museum, London; the Princeton Art Museum; the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena; and of course in France, with the largest holdings in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, and the Louvre, Paris.
(1) Dr Alastair Laing, Francois Boucher: 1703-1770 (exhibition catalogue), Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986, pp.293-294
[i] This inscription does not appear to relate to the present work - a possible candidate for it is Jakob Ernst Marcus (1774-1826), a Dutch artist who specialised in portraiture, figure studies and the occasional copy of Dutch Golden Age landscapists. He is not known ever to have made copies such as this, and his hand is totally different to the present work and much less accomplished. It is possible that this was inscribed on the verso when a previous owner placed a different drawing over the mount; however this is unknown.