You are young, you are full of ambition, you want to change the world; you are an artist. You have been admitted to the most prestigious institute in your field and won the favor of the top collector in the land. But your country is plagued by social inequality and hyperinflation. Political crises culminate in the culmination of the other. Art is enough, right now? Or should you turn your art into something else – something more engaging, more dogmatic, more like propaganda?
And when the world changes, how far will you go? Perhaps all the way into the hall of power, where you’ll adopt an unpredictable fervor. When your allies execute their enemies, you cheer them on. When they commit suicide, you will honor them as martyrs. You’ll go to jail, beg for brushes and pencils, and re-emerge in a country eager to forget what you’ve done.
In 2022, our museums and streaming services offer daily pitches of the “strength” and “relevance” of culture. Our speech condenses art into the dullest political message. It all sounds like story time for children in the shadow of Jacques-Louis David, the artist and moralist who portrayed the French Revolution with deadly purity. In the 1780s, he erased the lightness and playfulness of Rococo in his strict historical paintings drawn from classical examples. Then, when the Bastille fell, he transformed that Roman sanctity into images of current events, and immediately brought it to political life.
We’re not talking about some creative soul that went to a rally or two. With David, we are talking about the greatest artist of his generation, the one who had the greatest influence on the next generation, who – in the original sense of the word – a terrorist. A friend and ally of Robespierre during the Reign of Terror, David sat in the revolutionary parliament and joined its most feared committees. He would both design the new republic and sign the death warrants for real and recognized counter-revolutionaries. (Cancel culture, forsooth.) In 1792, when the king’s fate came before the National Convention, Citizen David proudly cast his vote to put Louis XVI on the guillotine.
“Jacques-Louis David: The Radical Draftsman,” a seriously important and deadly exhibition opening this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bringing together more than 80 works on paper by this French neoclassical proponent, from young Roman studies through the resilient Jacobin years, to prison and then to Napoleon’s cabinet, and through his final exile in Brussels.
It was an academic feat, with loans from two dozen institutions, and unprecedented discoveries from private collections. It will captivate professionals who want to map how David builds his powerful oil paintings from sketches and preparatory pleating studies. But for the general public, “Radical Draftsman” has a more immediate importance. This show forces us – and at the right time – to think hard about the true power of pictures (and the people who make them), and the cost of political and cultural certainty. What is beauty, and what is morality? And when virtue overshadows terror, what is beauty really for?
Jacques-Louis David was born in 1748 in Paris into a bourgeois family. As a teenager, he followed suit Joseph-Marie Vien, who imbued with pastoral Rococo, soft with classical themes. The young David was very fond of antiques, and in 1771, against Vien’s advice, he applied for the Prix de Rome, an award that came with a year-long residency in Italy.
He slipped. Too young. He tried again the following year, failed again, and threatened to starve to death. He tried again in 1773. Again failed. David will not relent. On his fourth attempt, he entered – and in his student sketchbook here, drawings of the Capitoline, Forum and busts of emperors and gods show David how gluttony permeated the Roman example.
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In Rome, David would spectacularly abandon his youth training. The figures in his drawings became stiffer, more figurative. Themes ranged from mythology to Roman history: especially scenes of patriotism in the early republic, for which he enjoyed the empire’s decline. The drawings here depict relatives killing loved ones, or mothers sending their sons to war. In his first masterpiece, “Horatii’s Oath“, the three brothers spread their arms wide as they swore to lay down their lives for the Roman Republic. Their bodies were solid marble. Their sisters, sobbing and fainting in the corner, wore Duty above all.
The “Oath of Horatii”, made by royal commission and completed in 1785, made David the unrivaled leader of the French school. Four drawings show how he made this new work. Look at the stiff diagonal lines on Horatii’s limbs, and the swirling fabrics on her cousins’ robes. Notice the narrow palette of stony grays and blood reds in a color canvas, though the final piece in Paris is even better. There are also some false starts. The two macabre drawings here depict a later episode of the Horatii story: a brother kills a sister as punishment for her woman’s pain.
Throughout the Met screening, put together by curator Perrin Stein and accompanied by a robust catalog, three, four or five-sheet arrays reveal how David pieced these rigorously polymorphic scenes together . He starts with sketches, figuring out the position of the arms and legs, often working from the nude to the correct anatomy. Then came the larger studies of fabrics and clothing. Occasionally there is also little oil. The resulting paintings are absent – except for the Met’s own picture”Socrates’ Death, ” Another story of virtue and renunciation, preceded by four drawings. The philosopher was preparing to drink marjoram, when an unbearable disciple was on guard.
You are an artist and the year is 1789; a loaf of bread costs almost a day’s wages, although you can always eat it. David that year completed another cartoon about Roman republican virtue: “The actors bring Brutus the bodies of his sons,” represented by eight drawings in which a father refuses to mourn his dead children, who have supported the monarchy. (Between ideals and families, the choice is clear: Kill your children.)
But something was happening at Versailles, where the commoners of the Estates General had separated from the clergy and aristocracy, and declared themselves the legitimate parliament of France. One day in June, they found the door to their meeting place locked. They were worried that Louis’ army might attack, so a member named Dr. Guillotin – and remember that name! – suggested they move from the palace to a nearby tennis court.
It would fall into the hands of David – “the author of ‘Brutus’ and ‘Horatii'”, another Jacobin said, “the French patriot whose genius foresaw the Revolution” – to immortalize what happened. The leaders of the council called for a vote to establish a constitution. The common people spread their arms in pledge, like the hero Horatii. Priests and free aristocrats joined them, in when the petit peuple cheers from the warehouse. Historical painting? We’re living in history now, and the impact is bodily: Witness young Robespierre, center right, clutching his chest during a republican orgasm.
David’s presentation drawing of “The Oath on the Tennis Court” is the most produced work in this exhibition. But there will be no final picture. The leader of the corporation in the center will appear in front of the guillotine. And much more work remains to be done, once the king and his wife are arrested and a new republic is proclaimed. David joins the Public Instruction Committee (Ministry of Education Thought meets Propaganda Department), as well as the General Security Committee, the agency that controls Terrorism. He disbanded the old academy and started art competitions to encourage revolutionary fervor.
He designed new uniforms, following the Roman model, for judges and congressmen. He organized huge parades for child martyrs, and festivals for a new state religion honoring the abstract Supreme. And when the new republic needed heroes, it turned to him. Journalist Jean-Paul Marat, crusader or hysterical depending on how you look at it, lies dead in a bathtub in David’s painted version of David’s supreme propaganda act. (“The death of Marat” was displayed at the Louvre on the afternoon of October 16, 1793. However, Marie-Antoinette’s head was dropped into a barrel early that morning. David’s sketch of her last hour absent from the Met.) In this show’s dense Marat canvas, David leaves the murdered journalist’s eyes slightly open. Cheeks drooping, lips pursed, as if Marat was still saying people’s names.
He turned his art into agitprop, and what is it? Surely this is a natural extension of “Horatii” and “Socrates” and “Brutus”: art as an apparatus for imparting virtue to the masses. And if painters are part of a killing machine, that’s only natural. Virtue and terror are cultural values now. The artist must live them in public. And if you think otherwise, well, watch out for your neck.
You’re an artist, things are going your way, and that’s 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 to his death with a quote worthy of his “Socrates”: “If you drink the bloodstain, I will drink it with you.” But David was conveniently absent from the guillotine the next day. Arrested a week later, he begged for his life with a curious excuse: I’m just an artist. One of the show’s most distinctive feats was the assembly of six drawings David made of his Jacobins friends in prison, all shaped, in circular frames like the Roman heroes. on coin. On one of them you can read the inscription “David faciebat in vinculis.” I did this in series.
In prison, he started sketching “The Intervention of the Sabine Women, “His first major post-revolutionary photograph: a love scene bringing rival armies to peace, a Roman model for French reconciliation. But by 1799, when “Sabines” were on the market, a Corsican general had transformed the ideals of the Revolution into personal supremacy. David, who had spent the previous decade creating paintings of radical equality, would eventually become the official painter of Napoleon’s court, and honor the new emperor with a 32-foot panorama. about his coronation. In that colossal structure, Napoleon crowned the kneeling queen Josephine, but the drawings here show the original plan: He is crowning with one hand.
Perhaps David’s revolutionary fervor had succumbed with age. Maybe he’s just an opportunist who won’t give up power and fame once he’s tasted it. Either way, with the Bourbon Restoration of 1815, the artist ceased to move – and in Brussels exile he painted delicate, not to say dull, portraits of nobility and family members.
Prior to this mandatory exhibition, David’s late career had always made me look like a comedian. Here, however, I feel a new empathy for someone who no longer knows how to draw when his moment has passed. Because David, so brilliant and so cold, is the ultimate proof that culture and politics only marry easily when you do not have power. You are an artist, you want to change the world. But what will you do if you succeed?
Jacques-Louis David: Radical Draftsman
Through May 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/arts/design/met-museum-drawings-french-revolution.html The Dangerous Beauty of Jacques-Louis David