Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Death of Cato, after Charles Le Brun


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 114 × 128 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXXII 69 a

Catalogue entry

Here Turner extended his interest in the golden age of French classicism from Poussin to his contemporary Charles le Brun (1619–90). The picture (Musée d’Arras) was painted in 1646 in Lyon, when the artist was on his way back to Paris from Rome where he had been studying since 1642. With its powerful characterisation and contrasted lighting it shows a strong memory of Caravaggio. Cato, the stubborn and incorruptible opponent of Julius Caesar, commits suicide after the death of Pompey and the Battle of Thrapsus. He plunges a dagger into his stomach. While slowly bleeding to death he consoles himself by reading Plato’s Phaedo, the story of the last hours of Socrates and a meditation on the afterlife. Le Brun’s picture was given to the French Academy by La Live de Jully in 1763 and then entered the Louvre. It was deposited at Arras in 1953. Turner turned the sketchbook to landscape format to make this drawing.

David Blayney Brown
July 2005

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