This painting, by the French artist François-André Vincent (c. 1746-1816), strives to depict a scene of the ancient Greek philosopher, Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE), in his homeland of Abdera. Most notably, he was a pioneer of atomic theory and had personality and beliefs that garnered him a nickname as the “Laughing Philosopher.” Nevertheless, as the painting shows, Democritus’ lighthearted persona was not always visible. The Laughing Philosopher was said to have been drawn at times to solitude, especially when he wanted to study and think through his theories. The scholar, Diogenes Laertius (3rd century), produced a brief biography about Democritus after studying many ancient accounts and stories about the enigmatic man. Diogenes cited one of his sources, Demetrius, as saying, “‘It would seem that he also went to Athens and was not anxious to be recognized, because he despised fame, and that while he knew of Socrates, he was not known to Socrates, his words being, `I came to Athens and no one knew me’’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 9.7.35). More important to this particular painting, Diogenes also wrote, “He would train himself, says Antisthenes, by a variety of means to test his sense-impressions by going at times into solitude and frequenting tombs. The same authority states that, when he returned from his travels, he was reduced to a humble mode of life because he had exhausted his means” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 9.7.38-39). Such, then, is the gist of what is going on in the painting. François-André Vincent portrays quirky Democritus, who may be in one of his humble and thoughtful glooms, perhaps while studying or after returning from one of his scholarly adventures.
Written by C. Keith Hansley