Accused by the Athenian government of denying the gods and corrupting
the young through his teachings, Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.) was
offered the choice of renouncing his beliefs or being sentenced
to death by drinking hemlock. David shows him calmly discoursing
on the immortality of the soul with his grief-stricken disciples.
The figure at the foot of the bed is either Plato or Crito.
Painted in 1787 the picture, with its stoic theme, is perhaps
David's most perfect Neoclassical statement. The printmaker and
publisher John Boydell wrote to Sir Joshua Reynolds that it was
'the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanze
of Raphael. . . . This work would have done honour to Athens at
the time of Pericles.' The subject is loosely based on Plato's
'Phaedo,' but in painting it David consulted a variety of sources,
including Diderot's treatise on dramatic poetry of 1758 and works
by the poet André Chenier. The pose of the figure at the
foot of the bed was reportedly inspired by a passage in a novel
by the English writer Richardson.