Socrates snatching Aciabiades from the arms of Aspasiu
(Baron Jean-Baptiste Regnault)


Provenance: Acquired by the Marquis de Saint Marc, circa 1786; inherited by his only daughter Mme de la Roze, and offered for sale by her in Paris, Hotel Drouot, 23 February 1859, lot 13 (under the title ‘Alcibiade et Aspasie’); unsold, and thence by descent to the present owner.[Note 1]
Literature: E. Benezit, Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, Paris 1999 (latest édition) XI, p. 519.C. Sells, Jean-Baptiste Regnault -Biography and Catalogue Raisonné, unpublished thesis (Courtauld Institute, London) 1983, p. 345.

Painted in 1786, this painting is the initial version of a larger work of the same subject which was exhibited in the Salon of 1791 (Paris, Musée du Louvre). The two paintings are substantially compositionally the same, save for an addition at the right of the Louvre version which shows two distressed female figures in an extended view of the palace room (Fig.1). A third version, on an even larger scale (385 x 580 cm) was produced by the artist in 1810 and acquired by the state in 1924 (location unknown).
Born in Paris, Regnault’s talent attracted attention from an early age and in 1768 he was sent to Rome by M. de Monval under the care of the history painter Jean Bardin, who was his first teacher. After his return to Paris in 1772, he entered the studio of Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié. Fours years later, he won the Prix de Rome with Alexander and Diogenes (Paris, Ecole N. Sup. B.-A.) and returned to Rome, where he was to spend the next four years at the Académie de France in the company of Jacques-Louis David and Jean-François-Pierre Peyron. Having noticed how Peyron had developed his style based on Poussin and that David had given himself over to Caravaggesque realism, Regnault was initially inclined towards pursuing a Late Baroque style, as seen in his Baptism of Christ (untraced; but recorded in two sketches and an etching), and Perseus Washing his Hands (1779; Louisville, KY, Speed A. Mus.). His style later progressed towards the static Neo-classicism of Anton Raphael Mengs. Until 1787 he would sign his pictures Renaud de Rome, to disassociate himself from the mannered taste of French painting before the time of David.
In 1783, Regnault returned to France and threw himself at the task of painting, for his morceau d’agrément, a canvas of Perseus delivers Andromeda and returns her to her parents (destroyed; reduced version, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage) and for his morceau de réception, the Education of Achilles (Paris, Louvre). Accepted for exhibition at the 1783 Salon, these two pictures established Regnault as a key player in the regeneration of French art, as it currently was being promoted by the Comte d’Angiviller, the director of the Bâtiments du Roi. Nevertheless, while critics praised his command of classisized form, they found his work cold and expressionless. Throughout the rest of the 1780s Regnault received a series of royal commissions for which he produced highly polished, assured compositions of the Death of Priam (exh. Salon 1785; Amiens, Musée Picardie), the Recognition of Orestes and Iphigenia (exh. Salon 1787; Marseille, Musée de Beaux-Arts) and the Descent from the Cross (exh. Salon 1789; Paris, Louvre), all of which were admired, but not praised and by the end of the decade it was apparent that Regnault talents would not lie in the emotive classicism typified in the work of David. Where Regault began to find his ‘voice’ as a painter was in the more narrative classical and mythological subjects, ideally featuring female nudes, such as the present painting and his Cupid and Psyche (1785; Angers, Musée Beaux-Arts), both of which display the distinct characteristics that typify Regnault’s work throughout his career: a polished draughtsmanship, a Hellenistic approach to form, a rich palette and approach to tonality derived from seventeenth century Italian painting, particularly the work of Guido Reni.
During the 1780s, Regnault began to teach and his students included Robert Lefèvre, Pierre Narcisse Guérin, Merry-Joseph Blondel and Louis Hersent. Teaching was to help Regnault through the worst professional difficulties of the Revolution for at one point his studio briefly rivalled David’s in popularity. But, this popularity was fleeting and soon Regnault began to be seen less as a serious rival to David and as more as a reactionary, an ‘academic’ figure in the pejorative sense. His abstention from the Salons only contributed to this reputation. As Christopher Sells points out, a more balanced assessment of Regnault’s work would acknowledge the refinement of his technique and his notable eclecticism in an era that was so dominated by David and his adherents, and finally, his imaginative approach to classical sources, particularly his favourite: Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
There is no direct literary source for the subject of Socrates tearing Alcibiades from the arms of a courtesan, whether or not she is the famed Aspasia. Countless primary and secondary sources though describe the characters’ intertwined lives. Regnault certainly knew of the subject from Peyron’s painting, a less successful interpretation of the subject painted in Rome in 1782 (Private Collection, France) or maybe the preparatory drawings for it (Fig.2 Berlin art market 2009). Peyron is believed to have derived his composition from a passage in Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades (VIII, 3.): ‘Hipparete was a virtuous and dutiful wife [to Alcibiades], but, at last, growing impatient of the outrages done to her by her husband’s continual entertaining of courtesans, as well strangers as Athenians, she departed from him and retired to her brother’s house. Alcibiades seemed not at all concerned at this, and lived on still in the same luxury.’
Alcibiades (c.450-404 BC) was one of ancient Greece’s most adventurous and controversial personalities. He was the favourite disciple of Socrates, and is one of the characters in Plato’s Symposium, where he is described as blessed by fortune, leading a privileged life in Athens. He was, by most accounts, extremely good-looking, very wealthy and a bon vivant, and as such, became subject to gossip and equal parts admiration and opprobrium. He became a student of Socrates in his youth, and they were rumoured to even be lovers, but Alcibiades reputedly slept with women as well, and like most Athenian men of his day, including Socrates, he regularly frequented courtesans.
The father of modern thought, Socrates (469-399 BC) was the primary catalyst for Western philosophy, his ideas recorded and promulgated by his pupil Plato. Born in Athens, the son of a sculptor and a midwife, Socrates received the elementary Athenian education, including literature, music, and athletics. Later, he familiarized himself with the rhetoric and dialectics of the Sophists, the speculations of the Ionian philosophers, and the general culture of Periclean Athens. After brief periods spent as a sculptor and a soldier in the Peloponnesian War, Socrates turned his entire energies to philosophy and scholarship. Believing that argument was superior to writing, he spent the greater part of his mature life in the marketplaces agora of Athens, engaging in dialogue and argument with anyone who would listen or who would submit to interrogation. He was reportedly short and physically unattractive, but strong, possessing remarkable self-control and his zest for life, keen wit and generosity of spirit made him a popular figure. Active in political circles, Socrates’ greatest efforts went into teaching Athens’s young men to think, which in his terms meant using discussion to examine supposed truths. He recognized the necessities of politics, but above all, believed in the concept of ‘truth’ and spent a lifetime in its pursuit. For this reason, his contribution to philosophy was essentially ethical in character. The basis of his teachings rested on an objective understanding of abstract concepts: justice, love, and virtue, and self-knowledge. He believed that all vice was the result of ignorance, and that no person was readily ‘bad’; correspondingly, virtue, in his mind, was knowledge, and those who knew ‘right’ would act ‘rightly’.
Courtesans, or hetairai were much more than mere prostitutes, and are better compared with the grandes horizontales of the 19th century. According to ancient literary sources, and scenes from vase paintings, hetairai were not only intelligent, but more unusually for a woman, educated. In his Deipnosophistae, Athenaeus explained that hetairai were trained in the art of conversation, musical entertainment including singing, dancing and playing instruments. They cultivated whatever beauty they possessed and were well-dressed. They had few restrictions on their lives, an existence that contrasted sharply with the oppressive lives of married women in Athens. They did not however, enjoy financial security or any legal or family protection. As the paid escorts of aristocratic men hetairai attended symposia, drinking parties that combined political and philosophical discourse, often attended by the most influential and powerful citizens in Athens. Several ancient authors state that Aspasia, common-law wife of Pericles, and herself a hetaira, as noted in the Symposium, operated a house of courtesans, the most illustrious in Athens. There, she educated young women (Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 24.3), a fact that no doubt would have threatened traditional Athenian gender roles. Aspasia was acknowledged by Socrates as a teacher of rhetoric, and women in her house were clearly taught more than sexual skills. Aristophanes and others refer to ‘Aspasia’s whores’, and whether or not the female figure pictured here is Aspasia or not, the setting is a brothel.

Bearing all of this in mind, the present picture is best read independently of all we know of Alchibiades, Aspasia, and above all, Socrates. It is difficult to imagine the philosopher becoming morally outraged by a visit to a brothel and the idea that he would be infuriated with jealousy also seems unlikely. Socrates himself enjoyed regular symposiums in the presence of courtesans. It is true that he advised moderation, and would have disapproved of too much time being wasted on sex, but that very moderation would have prevented him from becoming enraged at such misconduct. It is more likely, that Regnault was projecting his own morality onto the subject and shows us a wise teacher angrily dragging his foolish pupil from a woman’s seductive, but corrupting arms. The fact that Regnault added two semi-nude female figures in his later version, to imply that Alchibiades is actually being dragged away from an orgy, both supports this reading and undermines the idea that the female figure in the present work is Aspasia. It is possible that when the painting was presented for sale in 1859 the name was erroneously added to the title by the auction house cataloguer.

The painting was acquired in the mid-1780s by the ancestor of the Marquis de Saint Marc, along with some other outstanding French cabinet paintings, and passed by descent until the 1859 sale, where it was unsold and bought back by his daughter, in whose family it remained until 2002.

59 x 73 cm
Oil on canvas

Marquis de St marc, his sale Drouot 23 feb. 1859 lot 13
Purchased by his daughter Mme de Laroze and thence by descent


C.Sells, Jean baptiste Regnault biography and catalogue, unpublished dissertation, Courtauld Institute, 1983, p.345.

Historical Period
Neoclassicism - 1780-1820
Historical events
Price band
Sold or not available