Jean–Paul Marat

There is an awful lot of ignorance – not least among quiz question setters – concerning the circumstances of the death of Jean–Paul Marat. This is typified by a question I once heard, which asked what he was doing when he was murdered; the answer given was "taking a bath".

This is a gross trivialisation of the circumstances in which Marat found himself at the time. He suffered from a debilitating skin disease, which had prevented him from working for some time. The only way he could find relief from this condition was to soak in a medicinal bath, and for the last few weeks of his life he practically lived in his bath.

Charlotte Corday was a young Girondin sympathiser (see below), who claimed to have information on the activities of the Girondins who had fled to Normandy. Marat granted her an audience in his bathroom; at the end of a lengthy interview, Corday produced a knife and stabbed Marat through the chest. He died within seconds.

Jean–Paul Marat was born in 1743 in the town of Boudry, which was then part of Prussia but is now in Switzerland. His father was from Sardinia and his mother was a French Huguenot. He left home at 16 and studied medicine in Paris, but without gaining any formal qualifications. He then moved to London, where he set himself up in medical practice and made many friends in the fields of art and science. In around 1770 he found himself in Newcastle–upon–Tyne, where he turned his attention to writing.

By 1776 he was gaining a reputation as a doctor, and he returned to Paris where he treated the nobility and the royal family. As the French Revolution approached however he returned to writing, giving his support to the Third Estate (the commoners – the first two estates being the clergy and the nobility). He established a newspaper, giving it the title L'ami du peuple (The People's Friend), and used it to attack the most influential and powerful groups in Paris. He was elected to the National Convention, becoming a leader of the Montagnards – the radical faction that was ascendant during the Reign of Terror. Following the execution of Louis XVI in January 1791, he fought bitterly with the Girondins – a loosely–knit alliance within the National Convention, who had begun to resist the spiralling momentum of the Revolution. The overthrow of the Girondins in May 1793 was Marat's last major achievement, as he was forced by the above-mentioned skin disease to retire from the Convention. He began to work from home, where he soaked in a medicinal bath.

It was on 13 July 1793 that he gave an audience to Charlotte Corday, with the result that needs no repetition here.

Corday was guillotined four days later. Marat had become a martyr of the Revolution, and the painter Jacques–Louis David (a fellow Montagnard) was appointed to arrange his funeral and depict his death. David's painting greatly understates the ravages of Marat's skin disease, and has been accused of glorifying his death.

David himself was imprisoned after the fall of Robespierre, and later aligned himself with the Napoleonic regime. After the fall of Napoleon he lived quietly in Brussels, where he died in 1825. In 1886 his family donated the painting to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in that city, where it can be seen to this day.

© Haydn Thompson 2017