The Murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday
In one of the most famous paintings done by Jacques-Louis David the Revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat is depicted slumped to the side in his bathtub, a quill pen in his right hand, the paper upon which he had been writing still grasped in his left. The painting is of the scene following the murder of Marat by a young woman named Charlotte Corday. The painter, David, was a member of the same revolutionary faction as Marat. Called the Montagnard, they were the dominant party during the Reign of Terror, which Marat’s murder helped to usher in, late in 1793.
The Montagnard (Mountain) were representative of the middle class, which gave them strong influence in Paris. In early June 1793 they executed a coup which overthrew the power of their opponents the Girondin, and began work on a new Constitution, completing it in just a few days. Jean-Paul Marat was not formally a member of any party, but his sympathies often lay with the Mountain. Marat was an influential journalist who had called for the execution of prisoners during the September Massacres, and his services to Robespierre and the Mountain had helped them achieve their coup. With the Mountain firmly in power, Marat was no longer needed.
Marat soon withdrew from the National Convention both because of the lack of demand for his services and the steady worsening of a skin disease from which he had long suffered. He was in the habit of taking long baths to ease the discomfort from his condition, which is now believed by some to have been a form of dermatitis, which caused him to endure blistering and painful lesions. He was soaking in his bath in July when he was informed that a young woman with information about Girondins who had fled following the coup wished to see him. Over the protests of his wife he had her enter his bath chamber. The tub was covered with a plank to serve as a writing desk.
The woman, Charlotte Corday, dictated to Marat a list which he wrote down of the names of the Girondins who had taken refuge in the Normandy town of Caen. According to Corday’s later testimony Marat promised that all of them would be guillotined, “within a fortnight.” She then stabbed him forcefully in the chest with a large knife, severing the carotid artery, and Marat bled to death in seconds. Corday was later found to be a Girondin supporter, with members of her family serving with the Royalists. These facts later helped the Mountain initiate what became the Reign of Terror based on the inference that Royalists had infiltrated the political factions opposing the Mountain.
Corday underwent three separate interrogations and a trial. Four days after the assassination of Marat she was executed by guillotine in Paris, July 17, 1793. By then the Reign of Terror had already begun, but her statements in interrogation and at trial gave the Mountain, led by Robespierre, the incentive to accelerate its activities to purge suspected Royalist and anti-Republican support. Between June 1793 and July 1794 more than 16,500 sentences of death were handed down by French courts and tribunals, with very few of them commuted. Robespierre would write of the period, “Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe, and inflexible justiceâ¦”