The French Revolution was a time of radical social and political change that lasted from 1789 to 1799, resulting in the collapse of France’s absolute monarchy and an attack on traditional aristocratic, feudal, and religious privileges by radical left-wing organisations and rioters on the streets. Two of its most memorable events were the execution of King Louis XVI on 21 January 1793, and the assassination of the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub on 13 July 1793.
Marat, from the Canton of Neuchatel in French-speaking Switzerland, was a physician, political theorist, and scientist who had already led an interesting life before he became involved in the French Revolution—but it was in these years of turmoil that he found fame as a radical politician and writer.
Marat had studied medicine in Paris and left (without any actual qualifications) for London in 1765, where he started working as a doctor. There he fell in with a bohemian crowd, mixing with artists and architects from across Europe in the coffee shops of Soho, and started composing essays on political theory and philosophy.
In 1770 he moved north to Newcastle-upon-Tyne—where it is thought that he worked as a vet—and wrote his first radical polemic entitled “Chains of Slavery,” in which he denounced the ruling classes as despots and enemies of liberty. He later explained that he wrote it over a period of three months, during which he lived on strong black coffee and slept only a couple of hours a night, and after which he slept for 13 days straight.
In 1776 Marat returned to Paris and—somewhat ironically—started working as a court doctor to the aristocracy, and even to the bodyguard of King Louis XVI’s brother the Comte d’Artois (the future King Charles X). However, on the eve of the revolution he decided to devote himself only to politics, writing incendiary essays that advocated violence against the ruling classes. Soon that violence came with the invasion of the Tuileries Palace and the execution of the King.
After a while the leaders of the French Revolution started to turn on one another, and Marat became embroiled in a dispute with the Girondist political faction. They were driven out of Paris on 2 June, and on 13 July Marat was visited at his flat by a young stranger (as it turned out, a Girondist sympathiser) called Charlotte Corday. Even though he was in the bath—and in spite of his wife Simonne’s protests—she asked to have an audience with him about the Girondists, and he agreed. Corday spoke with him for around fifteen minutes, and then she suddenly drew out a five-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him through the stomach.
This assassination was immortalised in Jacques-Louis David’s famous masterpiece The Death Of Marat, showing him as a handsome young revolutionary slumped over the side of the tub, but in reality the scene was quite different. By the time of his murder, Marat was largely confined to his bath because of a debilitating skin disease that left him discoloured and covered in scabs; and, even before the disease, he had been described as “short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face.”
Caption: A depiction of “The Death of Marat” after Jacques Louis David’s painting.