On Wednesday I wrote about the complex characters of Marat and Charlotte Corday. Pursuant to my current obsession with the French Revolution, today we’ll turn to another contradictory character from that time, the painter Jacques-Louis David. He dominated French art during the Revolution. He became chummy with the psycho-killer Robespierre, but then later, crazy as it sounds for someone who wanted to abolish France’s monarchy and who voted for the execution of Louis XVI, he went on to hero-worship the consummate representative of absolute monarchy, Napoleon.
David (you pronounce it the French way, dah-VEED) was born in Paris in 1748. He became famous for his heroic paintings of scenes from antiquity. His work was a departure from the Rococo style popular at the time–you know, all those naked nymphs and frolicking cherubs. When French Revolutionaries interpreted patriotic messages in David’s paintings, he found himself the artistic mouthpiece of the Revolution. He went on to commemorate its martyrs, create multimedia pageants, and organize state funerals, all designed to keep the unruly mobs on-message.
Here’s his famous portrait showing the death of his old pal, Marat:
Note the difference in emphasis between the David rendition of the crime scene, and the one by Paul Baudry (below). Can you guess where the painters’ sympathies seemed to lie? We know that Marat was emaciated and ill-shapen, with hideous weeping sores all over his body. In David’s painting he looks cherubic, unblemished, and buff. In Baudry’s rendition, Marat is in shadow, and our focus rests on Charlotte, her eyes focused bravely on the middle distance, her face shining with the light of heroic self-sacrifice.
Idealized though it was, David’s painting of Marat was pretty radical for the time. It wasn’t a scene from antiquity. It documented a recent event. That was pretty cutting edge. David made art a participant in the Revolution.
And it wasn’t just his art. David the man was an active participant during the Reign of Terror. He was a member of the Stasi-like Committee of General Security, and his signature appears on nearly 300 arrest orders. He had a habit of sitting in a nearby cafe, sketching the wretched people in passing tumbrels on their way to the guillotine. Here’s his famous “Widow Capet,” showing Marie Antoinette on her way to her beheading.
After Robespierre fell from power (and got himself guillotined), David was thrown into prison because of his alliance with him. But the worst of the Terror had passed, and he was released. After a few years in quiet retirement, he met Napoleon at a dinner in 1797 and got caught up in the future despot’s charismatic, power-hungry charm. When Napoleon seized power in 1799, David became his court painter. It probably didn’t hurt that Napoleon paid his court painters very well.
No wonder Napoleon loved him. Here’s a famous David painting showing Napoleon crossing the Alps (1801). It depicts a handsome warrior in a billowing cape on a mighty steed. It’s an awesome painting. Say what you will about the guy personally; he was a remarkable painter.
Contrast it with this one, painted 49 years later by Hippolyte Delaroche, showing the same subject.