Regnault, Baron Jean-Baptiste

Paris 1754 - Paris 1829
Biography & List of works

Socrates Tearing Away Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensuality

Socrates Tearing Away Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensuality


Medium: Oil On Canvas

Size: 59 x 73 cm

Signed: and dated center right: Regnault de Rome ft 1785


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.


C. Sells, Jean-Baptiste Regnault -Biography and Catalogue Raisonné, unpublished thesis (Courtauld Institute, London) 1983, p. 345.

Regnault was a child prodigy already noted for his drawing skills by the age of ten. As a boy he left with his parents for Canada and Louisiana where they spent five years, before returning to join Bardin’s studio at the School of Fine Arts. In 1775 he received the second prize of painting and, in the following year, the grand prize, which entitled him to three years study at the French Academy in Rome on a state scholarship. He was elected a probationary (agrée) member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1782 and, in 1783 at the age of twenty-nine, became a full member submitting as his entry The Education of Achilles. His success at the Salons led to a series of important state commissions, including not only subjects from classical history but also portrayals of contemporary events such as the marriage of Napoleon’s brother Jerome and The Captured Austrian Banners being Delivered to the Senate.

Following the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1814-15 he resumed his career as a history painter and portraitist. He had always avoided the cold neo-classicism of Jacques-Louis David and, after the Restoration, with the regicide David in exile in Brussels, Regnault’s rich and luminous colours and sensuous figures enjoyed great popularity both with private collectors and official patrons.

The painting here dates from 1785, but a smaller composition, likely a sketch is known and hangs in the Louvre, Paris. The two paintings are compositionally the same, save for the right of the Louvre version, which shows two distressed female figures in an extended view of the palace room. A third version, on an even larger scale (385 x 580 cm) was produced by the artist some 25 years later, in 1810, likely requested of the artist and acquired by the French state in 1824, however it’s location as of 1907 is unknown.

There exists 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, a name attached to the title of this picture, probably sometime in the 19th century. Countless primary and secondary sources, though, describe the characters’ intertwined lives. Regnault certainly knew of the subject from the painting by Pierre Peyron (1744 – 1814), a colleague of his in Rome. Peyron’s composition, Socrates Tearing Away Alcibiade from the Charms of Pleasure (Private Collection, France), done in Rome in 1782, is a less successful rendering of the scene; its pendant, The Funeral of Miltiades, is today in the Louvre. It is thought that Peyron drew his image from a passage in Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades (VIII, 3.) Alcibiades (c.450-404BC) 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. Alcibiades seems, above all, to have been described as blessed by fortune. He led a privileged life in Athens and was, by most accounts, extremely good-looking, wealthy and always spiritedly vivacious, a bon vivant with a quick and clever mind. As such, he was subject to much gossip, admiration, and equal animosity. He became a student of Socrates in his youth, and allusions are made to their having enjoyed the very Greek idea of love between a man and youth. Plato himself considered this a, perhaps, superior love to purely erotic love between a man and woman.

Alciabiades is reported as having had liaisons with countless women as well though; he, in fairness like most Athenian men of his day, regularly visited the city’s courtesans. He was no ideal husband, as Plutarch described, but at a period of incredible inequality between the sexes, marriage was contractual, not born of love. Socrates (469-399bc) is responsible, some would argue, for modern thought, through his contribution to Greek philosophy; he, more than any other, was the catalyst for Western philosophy, his ideas recorded by his pupil Plato. Born in Athens, the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and Phaenarete, a midwife, Socrates received the regular elementary Athenian education, which included literature, music, and athletics. Later he familiarised himself with the rhetoric and dialectics of the Sophists, the speculations of the Ionian philosophers, and the general culture of Periclean Athens. Initially, Socrates followed the craft of his father; according to a former tradition, he executed a statue group of the three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis until the 2nd century A.D. In the Peloponnesian War with Sparta he served as an infantryman with conspicuous bravery at the battles of Potidaea in 432-430 B.C., Delium in 424 B.C., and Amphipolis in 422 B.C. Socrates believed in the superiority of argument over writing and therefore spent the greater part of his mature life in the marketplace and public places of Athens, engaging in dialogue and argument with anyone who would listen or who would submit to interrogation. Socrates was reportedly unattractive in appearance and short of stature but was also extremely hardy and self-controlled. He enjoyed life immensely and achieved social popularity because of his ready wit and a keen sense of humour that was completely devoid of satire or cynicism.

Though certainly active in political circles, Socrates greatest efforts went into teaching Athensǯs young men to think, which in his terms meant questioning supposed truths through discourse. While he recognised the necessities of politics, he pointedly concentrated on less ephemeral topics. He believed in the concept of ‘truth’ and spent a lifetime in its pursuit. Socrates’s contribution to philosophy was essentially ethical in character for this reason. Belief in a purely objective understanding of such concepts as justice, love, and virtue, and the theme of, above all, self-knowledge that he hammered into his pupils, were the basis of his teachings. 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’. His logic placed particular emphasis on rational argument and the quest for general definition, traits visible in the writings of his pupil Plato, and later in Aristotle. Through the writings of these two particular philosophers, Socrates, one could claim, profoundly affected the entirety of philosophical, including Christian, thought to come.

Courtesans, or Hetairai, with whom Socrates and his contemporaries associated, were much more than simply high-class prostitutes, and may be better compared with the grandes horizontales of the 19th century, whose salons and admirers were famed. According to ancient literary sources, and scenes from vase paintings, hetairai were intelligent, but more unusually for a woman, educated. 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. Athenaeus, in Deipnosophistae explained hetaira were trained in the art of conversation, musical entertainment including singing, dancing and playing instruments. They, however, would not have had financial security or any legal or family protection. As the paid escorts of aristocratic men hetairai attended symposiums, drinking parties that combined political and philosophical discourse. At these symposiums they met the most influential and powerful citizens in Athens. Several ancient authors state that Aspasia, common-law wife of Pericles, and herself a hetaira mentioned in Plato’s 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. She was no less a threat than Socrates, who was later persecuted and killed for his radical thought. 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 clearly her illustrious house of ill repute.

Perhaps surprisingly one must ignore much of what we know about Socrates in looking at this painting. It is difficult to imagine his becoming this enraged, and certainly his becoming morally outraged, by a visit to a brothel. The idea that he would be infuriated with jealousy also seems unlikely. While he advised moderation, and would have disapproved of too much time being wasted on sex, that very moderation would have prevented extreme anger at discovery of such pleasure. Socrates himself enjoyed regular symposiums in the presence of courtesans. Likely the artist is dramatising his allegory: Regnault shows us a wise teacher, deeply annoyed, if not angered, and dragging his distracted pupil from the seductive, but hardly morally compromising, powers of the flesh. The fact that Regnault’s sketch includes two further disrobed female figures, implying that Alcibiades is being dragged from an orgy, an idea supported by Gerome’s later painting, which also supports the idea that the main female figure here is specifically Aspasia. The addition of this name to the title was given to the painting when it was presented for sale in 1859. 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.