Jacques-Louis David at the Metropolitan Museum — a French revolution in art

“The Oath of the Horatii” by Jacques Louis David (1784-1785) © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; photo: Michel Urtado

Jacques-Louis David’s roller-coaster life has taken him from the depths of obscurity to the shaky heights of power. Nourished on conventional academic style, he achieved a radical aesthetic, abandoning rococo flourishes for raw muscle. When the French Revolution broke out, he was ready. The austerity of his technique dovetailed perfectly with the severity of Jacobean principles, creating a fortuitous feedback loop between stylistic virtue and political purity. Beauty, as he defined it, served the moral good, as the state defined it.

The magnificent Metropolitan Museum Jacques-Louis David: Radical draftsman traces the full arc of his career, from his formative years in Rome, through his early neoclassical manifestos, to the propaganda of his revolutionary years, a stint in prison, glory under Napoleon and, finally, exile in Brussels. The unprecedented collection of works on paper includes loans from some twenty institutions and private collections. Such a concentrated display of skill would be enough to give the exhibition its shine, but the show also blindingly demonstrates how, even as his fortunes turned and his politics wavered, David clung to the strong beam of his art.

He was a slow starter. Having twice applied unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome, he threatened to go on a hunger strike, was nevertheless refused a third time and finally succeeded on his fourth attempt. This stay in Rome defined for him what it meant to be French: a revival of the ancient discipline. He fills his days with drawings of the Forum, the Pantheon, nudes and characters dressed as Greco-Roman archetypes, arming himself with an arsenal of memories.

‘The Prisoner’ (c1816-22) © https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

The Met installation reveals the deep and lasting impact of these sketchbooks. From the beginning, we see the emergence of David’s permanent themes, such as patriotic sacrifice and the insurmountable divisions between the male and female worlds. In a sketch for his first painting “Belisarius Begging for Alms” (which triumphed at the Salon of 1781), a blind, poor old general reaches out and opens his palm to accept charity from a passing stranger. This outstretched arm has entered the body language of David’s paintings, although its meaning has changed over time. A similar gesture recurs, with more terrible force, in that world-changing masterpiece, “The Oath of the Horatii” (1784).

The Met tracks the multi-year process of distilling this paint through a series of studies. A virtuoso chalk drawing consecrates the central composition: the cluster of brothers, virile bodies taut for combat, dominates one half of the frame, while the women liquefy in a swoon on the other. On the male side, stiff arms and steel swords form a taut structure, electrifying the scene through tendons and contours. A later oil sketch wraps the scene in a rococo haze of misty oranges and reds, which David ultimately rejected.

Too bad the final product stays at home in the Louvre, so viewers can’t see how ruthlessly it stripped away all sweetness and superfluity. The colors have become cold and gray, the light is unforgiving, and the steely limbs of men radiate moral clarity. Even the architecture had to sacrifice something for the noble purpose of the warriors. The Doric columns of the oil sketch have now been pruned from their bases, so that pure, unadorned cylinders rise straight from the ground. The storming of the Bastille was still years away, but already “all the ingredients necessary for revolutionary rhetoric were spectacularly announced in this painting: patriotism, fraternity and martyrdom”, writes Simon Schama in Citizens: Chronicle of the French Revolution.

‘The lictors bringing Brutus the bodies of his sons’ (1787) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Lila Acheson

Just about any ideology can embrace these lofty principles, and David elevated them, along with integrity and sacrifice, long before he had a program of proselytizing. More than a dozen studies preceded “The Lictors Bringing the Bodies of His Sons to Brutus”, which depicts the implacable founder of the Roman Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus, shortly after ordering the execution of his two rebellious sons.

First, the artist experiments with the energy of delirious crowds. Gradually, he removes distractions, reduces the cast of characters, simplifies lines, compresses depth of field. Instead, it illuminated three sets of extremities as if with separate spotlights: the bare legs of a corpse, raised on a stretcher; the mother’s arm, extended in desire and accusation; and Brutus’ knot of twisted toes, which express the immensity of a father’s pain and the trials of power. His face remains in shadow.

“The tennis court oath” (1791) © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; photo: Gerard Blot

The story of this work highlights the adaptability of art. Louis XVI commissioned it, David developed it during the last years of the old regime and it appeared at the Salon of 1789 just six weeks after the fall of the Bastille on July 14, reused to promote a political era totally different. David’s allegiance to antiquity made him suddenly topical, historical allegories freshly relevant, and his paintings struck the architects of the Revolution both as prophecy and vindication.

The exhibit ends with a large pen drawing of “The Tennis Court Oath”, a political maneuver that paved the way for violence in the streets. On June 20, members of the newly formed National Assembly defied the king by gathering at a tennis court near Versailles, where they vowed to remain until they completed a new constitution. David knew how to solemnize a controversial meeting: with his signature choreography of outstretched arms raised at an angle. Thanks to the very popular “Oath of the Horatii”, everyone recognized this gesture as an emblem of zeal, unity and loyalty. In 1794, David and his friend Robespierre organized a parade; participants re-enacted the salute, adding an ersatz of ancient dignity to the gathered crowds.

“Napoleon crowning himself” (1805) © Fondation Napoléon/Patrice Maurin-Berthier

When Napoleon took control of the nation and the rhetoric of the Revolution, David again arose, Zelig-like, as the leader’s appointed glorifier. Then, too, he responded to a new political reality with old tropes that proved strong enough to survive even Napoleon’s metamorphoses. The collective raised arm reappears in an oil sketch for “The Distribution of Eagles” (1809-10), forming the central triangle. Here, this collective swearing and raising of the eagle standard marks France’s transition from republic to empire – the betrayal, in other words, of all that David had claimed to defend from his life. (David’s semaphore also survived the Napoleonic era, eventually morphing into the fascist “Roman salute,” still popular with neo-Nazis today.)

One event overcame his insistence on manly stoicism and theatrical poses: his own arrest in 1794. news for him: empathy. A portrait in ink and gouache of naval commander Jeanbon Saint-André shows the intrepid warrior in profile on a round medallion, like a hero of antiquity. But he looks stressed now, his shoulders hunched, his hair disheveled under a simple black hat, his arms folded protectively, his gaze less defiant than apprehensive. Both artist and subject survived this series of humiliations and continued their illustrious careers, but at least in this portrait (and others like it) we see what happens when agility fails and certainties have collapsed.

As of May 15, metmuseum.org

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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