The pleasures of discovery (and vice versa...)

Mark Ledbury
Mar 12, 2013 4:00AM

The excitement of discovery - and the bargain of the century!

Artsy is an exciting new discovery tool, and discovery remains absolutely crucial to art history. So, this week, I was intrigued and astonished in equal measure by this news story

This drawing, catalogued as an early nineteenth-century copy of David’s Socrates and sold for a paltry 700 dollars plus buyers premium, was spotted by the Met's Curator of Prints and Drawings,  Perrin Stein, and her colleagues for what it almost certainly is, which is an early drawing by David himself in preparation for the magnificent painting now in the met

This is the stuff of dreams of course, the ecstasy of recognition, the joy of discovery –and moments like this  should be an inspiration to all those who trawl the auction rooms with keen eyes and limited budgets.


That said, of course, there is the “so-what” question to answer. Well, for us neo-classicism nerds, that’s a no-brainer. The Socrates is one of the iconic paintings of its era, a deeply philosophical work which as Thomas Crow so eloquently discussed in Emulation, also centres round the erotic and affective bonds which tie Socrates and his followers. And the many similarities between this new drawing and another  in a private collection,  published in the doorstop catalogue of the 1789 David exhibition (Cat.76) and dated  1782, now helps us to realize that David’s interest in the subject evolved from soon after his return from Rome and that it remained on his mind as he created the Horatii and the Brutus. This was a talismanic subject for David. However, as art historians have noted, it is also one on the minds of his generation:  The “Imaginary Socrates” (as Jean Seznec termed it so long ago)was a powerful image and self-image for the Enlightenment generation,  and one which David’s ambition and temperament seized on. Perhaps he was egged on by the enthusiasm of Denis Diderot, who in later years was very close to David’s surrogate father and Mentor, Sedaine, and who wrote two important imaginary scenarios based on the life and death of Socrates. One, famously conjured up in his Treaty on dramatic poetry published in 1758,  was no more than a plea for painters to seize this moral and affecting subject of Socrates stoic ethical suicide in the face of charges of corruption. However, Diderot also wrote a much less well known, and a more complex and ambiguous Socratean scene, which was part of his eloquent and fascinating article in the Encyclopédie, Composition (in Painting).    In this piece he articulated  in some detail an imaginary scene for painters in which the moral and sexual complexity of Socrates’ relationship with his disciples, and especially Alcibiades, is front and center.  What the Met’s fabulous find reflects is David’s response to Diderot’s moral / sentimental demands in the On dramatic poetry: what the fully fleshed-out painting in the Metropolitan’s own collection demonstrates is a richer, more nuanced vision more flavoured by this alternative scenario - in which desire has its part to play, and which is deeply inflected by a more holistic vision of Socrates and by David’s complex relationships with both mentors and students by 1787, when the painting was finished and exhibited. It will be wonderful when the Metropolitan brings the two visions into proximity, because behind these subtle changes of mind and composition lie a complex series of decisions motivated by aesthetics and desire.

But all that lies ahead, for now, let's toast the sharp eyes and keen brains that have brought (on the very very cheap) a great drawing into a public collection. 
Mark Ledbury