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Jacques Louis David mastered the art of self-preservation

Posted in Art, Artist, Historical articles, History, Revolution, Royalty on Monday, 29 October 2012

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This edited article about Jacques Louis David originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 773 published on 6th November 1975.

Oath of the Horatii, picture, image, illustration

The Oath of the Horatii, engraved from a painting by Jacques Louis David

Maximilien Robespierre was dead, destroyed on the guillotine by his former supporters, who had become surfeited with the orgy of bloodshed that had marked his virtual dictatorship of the country in the final months of the French Revolution. With his fall from power, it was inevitable that his closest friends should be arrested. Among those who were finally brought to trial was the famous painter, Citizen Jacques Louis David.

Pale with terror, Citizen David faced his judges and made his stammering defence. It was not a very good defence, mainly because he had a speech defect caused by a deformity of the jaw which made him somewhat less than eloquent. But he was fortunate. His judges, perhaps bearing in mind his contribution to revolutionary art, sentenced him to a mere five months’ imprisonment.

It was not just David’s enemies who were disappointed with the verdict. Even the moderates considered that he deserved to die. Not so much for his so called crimes, which had been trumped up anyway by his enemies, but because he had proved himself a fanatical monster, cast in the same mould as his former master.

Before the revolution, the king had been his patron, and David had rewarded him by voting for his death. He had signed death warrants without a qualm, and he had used his political power to bring about the disgrace of two of his artistic rivals.

There was also the matter of the way he had behaved over Emilie Chalgrin, the wife of an aristocrat who had fled to Brussels, leaving her to be arrested by Robespierre’s minions. Her brother, who was a friend of Louis David, had immediately run to him and implored that he should intervene on her behalf.

“I cannot beg of Robespierre,” David told him coldly. “The tribunal tries fairly; your sister is an aristocrat for whom I will not stir!”

After his friend had been reduced to a state of grovelling abjection, he had finally relented and had obtained an order of release – which he had then absent-mindedly kept in his pocket until it was too late to be of use to Emilie Chalgrin.

David might well have lived and died an obscure painter if it had not been for the revolution. After five years of study in Rome he had returned to Paris, where his severe classical style exactly suited the times and was very much to the taste of the king. Even so, he would probably have sunk into oblivion in time. David was no innovator, and his work up to that period did not compare with that of artists like Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard and Chardin. The revolution was to change him temporarily from a dull classical painter to one of those rare artists who are the men of their hour.

Although much of David’s life shows him to have been a man with an eye always to the main chance, he was genuinely devoted to the revolutionary cause, and he responded to the new feverishly excited patriotism that was now abroad by becoming an impassioned artist whose brush was always at the service of the cause he held dear.

Early in 1793, Lepelletier, one of the deputies who had voted for the death of the king, was assassinated. The body was exhibited to the public, and David painted a picture of the murdered man on his death bed. Six months later, his brush was put to a similar use when Marat fell a victim to the knife of Charlotte Corday. When the news was brought to the Convention, one of the deputies cried out: “David, where are you? You have transmitted to posterity the image of Lepelletier dying for his country; one picture remains for you to paint.” “And I will probably do it,” David responded. Several months later he finished the most famous of all his paintings, that of Marat lying stabbed to death in his bath.

Subdued by his period in prison, David returned to his severely classical style with his painting, The Sabine Women, which was exhibited in the Louvre, where it remained for five years. Although it was a great success at the time, it is a cold, over-theatrical picture, excellently drawn in parts, but lacking in any true vitality.

After Robespierre, Napoleon. With his usual flair for attracting the attention of those in power, David now found himself being patronised by Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been elected First Consul in 1799. Anxious to please the powerful, as always, David even departed from his classical style of painting in the hope of finding another style which would meet with Napoleon’s approval. Napoleon, it seems, had definite ideas how he should be painted. “I will paint you,” David told him on one occasion, “fighting sword in hand.”

“I do not win battles with my sword,” Napoleon said. “I will be painted sitting unmoved on a high-spirited horse.”

The result was the famous picture of Napoleon crossing the icy summit of Mount St Bernard, pointing the way across the snow-bound Alps to Italy. It is not surprising in the circumstances that when Bonaparte was proclaimed Emperor, David was named first painter to the Imperial court.

Later, David withdrew to a great extent from official life. Time had mellowed him by then to such an extent that his pupils both venerated and loved him. Every Sunday it was his custom to receive them in his home where, in winter, he was to be found beside his fire, pipe in mouth, dispensing his theories on art. On other occasions, he attended the theatre or entertained his friends at home with lavish hospitality.

With the fall of Napoleon, David found himself out of favour with the Bourbons, and he made a tactful withdrawal to Brussels, where he lived peacefully and by no means unhappily. But he was now growing old and his hand was no longer so steady, and his pictures show a decided weakening of his powers.

In 1825, he took to his bed with a serious affection of the heart. When the end was near he asked for a proof of an engraving to be brought to him.

“Too black here,” he said weakly. “Too light just there. The shading in this part is not too well defined. Here the touch seems uncertain – ”

The cane he had been using to indicate where he wished changes to be made fell from his hands, and he breathed his last.

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