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A Socratic Journey- A Socratic Method-

Updated: Dec 28, 2023


Thoughts on philosophy, democracy, and the genesis of Western art-

Recreating a neoclassical painting-

Brian Keeler

Taking the final moments in the life of the philosopher Socrates as a subject for a painting brings about many contemplations- both timeless and timely. There are corollaries between the burgeoning democracy in ancient Athens and to our own time that are worth considering and even some relevancies between the French Revolution and the ancients and our own time. So much so that one can reasonably conclude that the relevancy of Socrates' words have an uncanny way of addressing our lives today. When Jaques Louis David painted his version of this subject in 1787 he was probably aware of the political overtones and similarities. In short, Socrates' observations are prescient in how they apply to politics and life of 18th century France or today.

"The Hemlock Cup" Oil on linen 36" x 40." For this painting models, (friends) posed in positions like those in the famous painting by Jacques Lois David's oil from 1787, "The Death of Socrates,"

The Socratic Method is how the ideal of this philospher's life and thinking is applied to teaching and learning today. This approach is to question everything but in a spirit of cooperation, so as to engage all participants. We like to think of our art as an investigation into life as well. Sometimes however it can be purple prose and at other times gritty reality. We try to avoid obsequiousness, or appealing to agendas or indulging in crowd-pleasing dance moves.

The initial motivation for this work was to pay homage to the spectacular work of this theme of Socrates' death in the painting of Jacques Louis David, that fortunately for us Americans hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I have stopped to admire this work on my many visits to the MET. It is truly virtuosic and therefore inspiring, humbling and awesome.

The other source of interest came from reading a recent biography of Socrates titled “The Hemlock Cup- Socrates and the Search for the Good Life” by Bettany Hughes. I read this book shortly after its publication in 2011 and then reread it while painting this new work.

Like any good biography, Bettany Hughes' work brings to life the personality and pertinence of this philosopher from the fifth century BC. Her work is made challenging by the shear distance of time but compounded by the fact that Socrates wrote nothing himself. Socrates comes off as an unpredictable character who is at once annoying, inspiring, thought provoking and challenging. What we know comes from his students and from plays in ancient Athens of his time. Aristophanes wrote two such theatrical productions in which Socrates is a character. These plays; "Clouds" and "Birds" offer us a take on the Gadfly of Athens. Plato’s “Dialogues” brings us imaginary debates that offer another impression.

"Study of Socrates" Red conte and white pastel on tinted paper 30" x 22"

The research, sleuthing, conjecture and imagining that Hughes shows us what the nitty gritty life of ancient Athens was like. She also shows us how the banality of wars and aggressive commercialism has nearly obliterated or seriously marred so many of the sacred places of ancient Greece. Bucolic streams and the sites of lectures or sacred groves are now under pizza joints and toxic waste flows under or nearbly.

The moment portrayed in the painting of David’s and my own is just before he drinks the Hemlock (or perhaps right after the drink) and he issues his last words- to repay the God Aesclepius for the rooster that he owes him and not to forget. An odd wish it seems to us- but wanting to make amends before entering the after life is understood. As Aesclepius is the God of healing, we assume that Socrates regards death as the ultimate healing, therefore he is beholden to the God. This of course comes after a dramatic trial which riveted the people of Athens and was rich in potent ideas.

I patterned the poses of the models in my painting loosely on the 19th century French painting. It was a fun project with my friends on our annual Susquehanna River canoe trip generously participating in this theme. The woman on the right, an intern at French Azilum Historical Site where we were camping, also joined in with a dramatic pose suggesting the lament of a mourner. As much as I admire and find David's work a virtuosic performance- there is a certain amount of idealism in this neo-classical style, which I steered away from. Unlike David who portrayed the 70 year old Socrates with the concave abdomen of a 20-something Athenian warrior, my models are portrayed in all their lovely human nature. It was a treat to paint the paunches of my friends who, like myself are showing their wonderfully aging frames and flesh.

Speaking of ideal bodies, Bettany Hughes also finds this worth some commentary in her book. She notes how the ancient Greeks were quite devoted to physical beauty in their art; statuary, vase painting and poetry. Also in their daily lives, by spending a good part of their days sweating in gymnasiums with the goal of sculpting their own physiques into Adonis-like perfection. Hughes also contemplates the fate or place in Sparta, Corinth or Athens of the infirmed, handicapped or slaves. In regards to slavery, it is worth noting that even when working towards an ideal like democracy to be inclusive of all Athenians, no one seems to question slavery on principle- not even Christ.

My work was conceived also to be able to be part of a novel about an artist in 15th century Florence who starts his career in Verrocchio’s studio with Leonardo and Botticelli. Hence the background in my painting is made to look like a Tuscan landscape. Artists of the renaissance often portrayed their Biblical subjects and Mythology themes with characters dressed in garb of their day or with the rolling hills of Umbria and Tuscany behind. There was an effort in my painting to alter the clothing too, so as to make it less of any specific era but with similarities to ancient Athenians.

Study of a lamenting woman, red conte and white pastel on tinted paper 30" x 22"

Also in homage to David’s work, I employed a color usage that is inspired by his. When one looks closely and his painting in the MET a wonderfully understated use of grey can be observed. This hue shift occurs as a modeling technique to assist in conveying the roundness of the human form. This occurs at the core of the shadow and other areas. David of course, is the gold standard and his usage is subtle and nuanced. I have used this bluish-grey also in turning forms of arms, legs and torsos but more overtly. Peter Paul Rubens used simialar hue shifts in his nudes, but his often veering toward a low-chroma green.

Socrates was administered the Hemlock at his jail cell, so I have taken some liberties with the setting. The perspective floor plan of orthogonals and transversals are included from the David painting as is the bed and mattress.

The idea of mortality and our own ideas of impermanence or finality are jogged here. I find it interesting that Socrates mentions “God” (singular) on occasion. This suggests to me that the pagans or classicists of antiquity could be both polytheistic and monotheistic. The divisiveness between Christian, Jew and the religions of antiquity may be overstated.

Still, his accusers leveled charges of impiety; not taking the Gods seriously and introducing new deities along with corrupting the youth. Much to Socrates dismay, his critics also accused him of being a Sophist, which was a serious charge- at least it was offensive to Socrates. Socrates hated the Sophists for perverting truth and arguing both sides of an issue simply to improve the rhetoric capabilities of their students. This brought to mind for me how truth in our current political sphere has be so distorted during the recent four years. Such memorable ideas as “alternate facts” have been bandied about by the likes of presidential aides- Kelly Ann Conway.

I digress however. But the core concerns of leading a good life are brought about by contemplating the ideas of Socrates. He is quoted as saying. “The Search for wisdom is the preparation for death.” Further, he admonishes us to introspection with these words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Studying the original painting by Jacques Louis David in the Metriopolitan Musuem of Art in NYC. This sketch of the original revealed many aspects of the work not appreciated from the photos. The light coming in from a window on the upper left but not depicted informs the entire work. The enfilade formed by the passageway on the left supplies a depth of space in the otherwise frieze-like arrangement of figures across the front of the space.

To view a video- of Keeler sketching from the original painting in the Metropolitian Museum in NYC-

The trial of Socrates was of course the climax to a long life, the drinking of hemlock was the denoument. Standing up for one's beliefs in the face of an angry and denigrating jury provides some lessons about integrity and courage. The trial also reminds us of others of similar ilk who faced the powers that be with aplomb. Giordano Bruno is one such historical character, a free thinker who ran afoul of the Catholic church in Italy, who I've thought of when in Rome and viewing his statue in Campo di Fiore. Others who come to mind include Thomas Moore and Gallileo- all like Socrates illustrating the volatile mix of politics, art, science and religion. We could add the fictional account of Harpur Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird to the list of trials, this one with racial tension, prejudice and injustice mixed in as well.

A neighbor of ours, a retired art history teacher, recently was looking at this painting and it brought a smile to his face. This was rewarding, as somehow the project has that element in it. The models enjoyed being thespians for short period and taking part in an ancient narrative. So I suppose there are two aspects here, one serious and one of levity. I recall that banner that used to be on a storefront here in Ithaca – “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” So maybe the balance of opposites is the takeaway here.

This sketch done at the MET in NYC was completed after the painting. It served to increase the appreciation of the original. Note the small X in the doorway to indicate the vanishing point. Look at the early stage below to see how this was altered in the painting by Keeler.

An early stage of the painting was done on a bluish-grey toned linen. Not the the vanishing point indicated by the X above the hemlock cup. The perspective lines, the orthogonals of floor all lead up to this point.

Note- To see a short video on the beginning of this painting, check out this Youtube link;

To view a video- on the final touches of this painting-

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