The Dangerous Beauty of Jacques-Louis David

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You are young, you brim with ambition, you want to change the world; you are an artist. You’ve been admitted to your field’s most prestigious institute, and won the favor of the top collector in the land. But your country is plagued by social inequality and galloping inflation. Political crises cascade one atop the other. Is art enough, right now? Or should you turn your art into something else — something more engaged, more dogmatic, more like propaganda?

And when the world changes, then how far will you go? Perhaps all the way into the halls of power, where you will adopt a zeal no one foresaw. When your allies execute their foes, you’ll cheer them along. When they get murdered themselves, you’ll glorify them as martyrs. You’ll end up in prison, pleading for brushes and pencils, and re-emerge in a country eager to forget what you’ve done.

In 2022 our museums and streaming services deliver daily sales pitches of culture’s “power” and “relevance.” Our discourse boils art down to the dullest political messaging. It all sounds like children’s story hour in the shadow of Jacques-Louis David, the artist-moralist who depicted the French Revolution with lethal purity. In the 1780s, he eradicated the lightness and joy of the Rococo in stern history paintings drawn from classical examples. Then, when the Bastille fell, he channeled that Roman rectitude into images of current events, and right into political life.

We’re not talking about some creative soul who went to a protest or two. With David we are talking about the greatest artist of his generation, the most influential for the next, who was — in the original sense of the word — a terroriste. Friend and ally of Robespierre throughout the Reign of Terror, David sat in the revolutionary parliament and joined its most fearsome committees. He would both design the new republic and sign the death warrants of counterrevolutionaries real and perceived. (Cancel culture, forsooth.) In 1792, when the king’s fate came before the National Convention, Citizen David proudly cast his vote to send Louis XVI to the guillotine.

“Jacques-Louis David: Radical Draftsman,” a momentous and deadly serious exhibition opening this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, assembles more than 80 works on paper by this prime mover of French Neo-Classicism, from his youthful Roman studies to his uncompromising Jacobin years, into jail and then Napoleon’s cabinet, and through to his final exile in Brussels.

It’s a scholarly feat, with loans from two dozen institutions, and never-before-seen discoveries from private collections. It will enthrall specialists who want to map how David built his robust canvases out of preparatory sketches and drapery studies. But for the public, “Radical Draftsman” has a more direct importance. This show forces us — and right on time — to think hard about the real power of pictures (and picture makers), and the price of political and cultural certainty. What is beautiful, and what is virtuous? And when virtue embraces terror, what is beauty really for?

Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris in 1748 to a bourgeois family. As a teenager he studied under Joseph-Marie Vien, who imbued the soft, pastoral Rococo with classical themes. The young David was fixated on antiquity, and in 1771, against Vien’s advice, he applied for the Prix de Rome, a prize that came with a yearslong Italian residency.

He failed. Too young. He tried again the next year, failed again, and threatened to starve himself to death. He tried again in 1773. Failed again. David would not relent. On his fourth try he got in — and in his student sketchbooks here, drawings of the Capitoline, the Forum, and busts of emperors and gods indicate how gluttonously David imbibed the Roman example.

In Rome, David would take a dramatic turn away from the training of his youth. The figures in his drawings became harder, more statuesque. The themes pivoted from mythology to Roman history: specifically scenes of patriotism in the early republic, which he preferred to the decadent empire. The drawings here depict kin killing kin, or mothers sending sons to war. In his first masterpiece, “The Oath of the Horatii,” three brothers extend their arms as they swear to lay down their lives for the Roman Republic. Their bodies are marble-solid. Their sisters, sobbing and fainting in the corner, go ignored. Duty first.

“The Oath of the Horatii,” done on royal commission and completed in 1785, made David the unrivaled leader of the French school. Four drawings demonstrate how he worked out this new composition. Look at the hard diagonals of the Horatii’s limbs, and the swirling fabrics of their sisters’s gowns. Note the narrow palette of stone gray and blood-red in a color drawing, though the final work in Paris is even grimmer. There are also some false starts. Two grisly drawings here depict a later episode of the Horatii story: a brother murders a sister to punish her womanish grief.

Throughout the Met’s show, assembled by the curator Perrin Stein and accompanied by a brawny catalog, arrays of three, four or five sheets reveal how David put these rigorous multifigure scenes together. He’d start with sketches, figuring out the placement of arms and legs, often working from the nude to get the anatomy right. Then came larger studies of fabrics and clothing. Little oils, too, on occasion. The resultant paintings are absent — except for the Met’s own “Death of Socrates,” another tale of virtue and renunciation, which is preceded by four drawings. The philosopher prepares to drink the hemlock, proffered by a disciple who can’t bear to watch.

You are an artist and the year is 1789; a baguette costs almost a day’s wages, though you can always eat cake. David that year completes another tableau of Roman republican virtue: “The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons,” represented through eight drawings, in which a father refuses to mourn his dead children who had supported the monarchy. (Between ideals and family the choice is clear: Kill your kids.)

But something is happening in Versailles, where the commoners of the Estates General have broken from the clergy and the nobles, and declared themselves France’s legitimate national assembly. One June day they find the doors of their assembly place locked. They get nervous that Louis’s army may attack, so a member named Dr. Guillotin — and remember that name! — proposes they move from the palace to a nearby tennis court.

It would fall to David — the “author of the ‘Brutus’ and the ‘Horatii,’” another Jacobin intoned, “that French patriot whose genius anticipated the Revolution” — to immortalize what happened next. The assembly’s leader calls a vote to establish a constitution. The commoners stretch their arms forth in commitment, like the heroic Horatii. Liberal priests and aristocrats join them, while the petit peuple cheers from the clerestories. History painting? Now we are living in history, and the impact is bodily: Witness young Robespierre, at center right, gripping his chest in republican orgasm.

David’s presentation drawing of “The Oath of the Tennis Court” is the most heavily worked sheet in this exhibition. But there would be no final painting. The assembly leader at center would go to the guillotine. And there was so much else to do, once the king and his wife went into custody and a new republic was proclaimed. David joined the Committee of Public Instruction (think department of education meets propaganda ministry), as well as the Committee of General Security, which policed the Terror. He got the old academy disbanded, and started artistic competitions to encourage revolutionary fervor.

He designed new uniforms, on the Roman model, for judges and parliamentarians. He staged huge parades for child martyrs, and festivals for a new state religion that glorified an abstract Supreme Being. And when the new republic needed heroes, it turned to him. The journalist Jean-Paul Marat, crusader or hysteric depending on your view, lies dead in the bath in the painted version of David’s supreme act of propaganda. (“The Death of Marat” went on display at the Louvre on the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1793. Marie-Antoinette’s head dropped into a bucket earlier that morning, though David’s sketch of her last hour is absent from the Met.) In this show’s densely crosshatched drawing of Marat, David lets the murdered journalist’s eyes bulge slightly open. The cheek droops, the lips purse, as if Marat were still speaking in the people’s name.

He had turned his art into agitprop, and what of it? Surely this was the natural extension of the “Horatii” and “Socrates” and “Brutus”: art as an apparatus to instill public virtue. And if the painter was part of the killing machine, that was only natural too. Virtue and terror were cultural values now. The artist must live them in public. And if you thought otherwise, well, watch out for your neck.

You are an artist, things are going your way, and it is 9 Thermidor, Year Two — or July 27, 1794, before your fellow revolutionaries changed the calendar. On the day Robespierre fell, David swore to follow him into death with a line worthy of his “Socrates”: “If you drink the hemlock, I’ll drink it with you.” But David was conveniently absent at the guillotine the next day. Arrested a week later, he begged for his life with a curious defense: I’m only an artist. One of this show’s most extraordinary feats is the assembly of six drawings David made of his fellow Jacobins in prison, all in profile, in rounded frames like Roman heroes on coins. On one of them you can read the inscription “David faciebat in vinculis.” I made this in chains.

In prison he began sketching “The Intervention of the Sabine Women,” his first major post-revolutionary picture: a scene of love bringing rival armies to peace, a Roman model for French reconciliation. But by 1799, when the “Sabines” went on view, a Corsican general had channeled the ideals of the Revolution into personal supremacy. David, having spent the previous decade producing spectacles of radical equality, would end up as Napoleon’s official court painter, and glorify the new emperor with a 32-foot-long panorama of his coronation. In that gigantic work Napoleon crowns the kneeling empress Josephine, but the drawings here show the original plan: He’s crowning himself with one hand.

Maybe David’s revolutionary fervor had tamed with age. Maybe he was just an opportunist, who would not give up power and fame once he’d tasted it. Either way, with the Bourbon Restoration of 1815, the artist was out of moves — and in Brussels exile he drew delicate, not to say sappy, portraits of nobles and family members.

Before this imperative exhibition, David’s late career had always struck me as a comedown. Here, though, I felt a new sympathy for someone who no longer knew what to draw when his moment had passed. Because David, so brilliant and so cold, is the ultimate testament that culture and politics only marry easily when you don’t have power. You are an artist, you want to change the world. But what on earth are you going to do if you succeed?


Jacques-Louis David: Radical Draftsman
Through May 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.

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