David’s Political Convictions

Jacques-Louis David was the most influential Neoclassical painter; he also was arguably the most influential painter of the 18th century (and subsequently the 19th as well). Earlier in David’s career, he was actively involved in the French Revolution. Many of his earlier paintings contain political subjects, which speak as a propagandistic call to arms (e.g. Oath of the Horatii) or glorify the martyrs of the cause (Death of Marat shows the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, who was killed in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday). In 1791, David began sketches for a commemorative painting of The Tennis Court Oath, 20th June, 1789, which was the historical event that launched the Revolution. In 1792 David was elected as a Deputy of the Convention; he became closely allied with rebel leader Robespierre.

Later, when the Republic fell and Robespierre was executed, David was imprisoned. This self-portrait on the right (1794) was painted while David was in prison. The large bulge on David’s left cheek is a swollen, benign tumor which resulted after a fencing accident as a youth (He was known as “Gross David with the swollen cheek” by his English enemies).1

“Following his release from prison, David declared that he would no longer follow men, he would follow principles. This indicated a desire to steer clear of controversial subjects.”2 I wonder if David’s political convictions (or “principles”) also changed during his imprisonment. Not long after David’s release, he painted a portrait for Napoleon. Over time, after Napoleon rose to power, David became the court painter for the empire. Simon Shama remarks how David’s career ends in “debased self-parody. The painter who invented a story to refute the charge that he’d dallied with a portrait commission for Louis XVI was happy to do Napoleon over and over and over.”3 (Above is one of David’s portraits of the emperor, Napoleon Crossing the Alps at the St. Bernard Pass, c. 1800-01).

After Napoleon briefly met David for his first portrait sitting, David declared, “Bonaparte is my hero.” Why did David, who used to be an active revolutionary, suddenly switch to become Napoleon’s adoring fan? Simon Lee describes David has having come under Napoleon’s “spell.”4 Historical writings and biographies describe Napoleon as charming and captivating.5 Was David so struck by Napoleon’s charm and charisma that he forgot all of his earlier political convictions? Or did David just pander to whoever was in power at the time, either as a literal or financial tactic for survival?

I assume that both Napoleonic charm and survival tactics played into David’s devotion to the emperor. It seems, however, that this might not have been such a wise choice. In 1816, after the fall of Napoleon, the artist was exiled and spent the rest of his days in Brussels.6 Perhaps David should have stuck with his earlier convictions and left Napoleon alone?

1 David also had a stammering problem and his speech was difficult to understand. It is interesting that someone whose painting is so expressive had difficulties with simple speech.
2 Simon Lee. “David, Jacques-Louis.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T021541, accessed 13 January 2009.

3 Simon Shama, The Power of Art (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 233.

4 Lee, “David, Jacques-Louis.”

5 For one example, see Alan Schom, Napoleon Bonaparte, (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), 7.

6 In 1989, Belgian authorities prevented David’s remains from returning to Paris.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    How interesting! When an artist was banned back in that time period, did the banishment exclude them from being working artists?

    I do think David, from what you’ve shown here, did beautiful work. I think the painting of Marat is fascinating (mind you, I say this as someone with a completely untrained eye — so you’ll have to correct me if I’m wrong — but it is such beautiful work).

    As always, thank you for such an interesting post. I truly wish I had taken art history during my college career — I have certainly missed out.

  • Rebekah says:

    Ha! Fascinating. I’ve always hated that picture of Marat because it’s such a piece of propaganda. Marat left a historical legacy as bloodthirsty and distinctly irreverant regarding human life. And also, particularly by the time of his death (and the reason he was in a bath so much), covered in pustules due to some bizarre pustule-illness. Not actually a pretty portrait of death.

    Wasn’t JLD’s father a famous painter of harems?

  • M says:

    You’re right, Ant B, Marat’s death was a little less romantic than what is portrayed in this painting. His flesh seems cold and marble-like in this work (in fact, even the position of Marat’s arm has been likened to Michelangelo’s marble “Pieta” sculpture), instead of the disgusting flaky mess that it really was.

    Marat did send a lot of people to the guillotine, that’s for sure. Actually, if David had been historically accurate, he would have depicted a pair of revolvers that hung on the wall behind Marat, with the words “LA MORT” (“DEATH”) inscribed beneath. He definitely didn’t have a sense of reverence for human life. Nonetheless, it appears that a lot of people were upset by his death at the time.

    I actually love the Marat painting because it is so effectively propagandistic. (However, you have to realize that I am a Baroque scholar, and the Baroque period was characterized by propaganda). Even if this painting is not an accurate representation of historical events, it typifies the political fervor of the time through its propagandistic nature. So, even though I agree with you that the art glorifies an individual who perhaps should not be glorified, I still love the art because it is such an effective means of glorification. It is the communicative and expressive nature of this painting that particularly interests me.

    I think that there is a lot of beauty in this piece too, Emilee. I love the brushstrokes, color, lighting, and composition. I especially love the loose brushstrokes on the monochromatic background – it reminds me of Caravaggio.

    In regards to harem painters, I think you are thinking of Ingres, David’s most famous pupil. “The Odalisque” is probably Ingres’ most famous work. I don’t think JLD’s father ever dabbled in painting. He was an iron merchant that died in a duel when David was nine. David’s mother, however, was a distant cousin of Boucher (a Rococo painter who depicted a lot of rosy-cheeked (!) females and cupids). Although David did not follow in the subject matter of his distant relative, perhaps he passed along some of Boucher’s ideas regarding subject matter to Ingres? 😉

  • M says:

    Here is a quote by Simon Lee which ties into my speculations regarding David’s political convictions:

    “David has often been accused of opportunism, largely because he lived through a period of unparalleled social and political upheaval. Certainly, he painted successively for the ancien régime, the Revolution and Napoleon, but all of his conversions appear to have been genuine and not premeditated. There have been many attempts to define the nature of David’s politics. Opinion is sharply divided between those who believe he displayed radical tendencies as early as the 1780s (e.g. Crow) or not until 1790 (e.g. Bordes). Perhaps his clearest characteristic is his extreme pragmatism. What is beyond doubt is that he managed to encapsulate exactly in his painting the different aspirations of successive regimes, and for long periods created his own stylistic parameters.”

    Simon Lee. “David, Jacques-Louis.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T021541 (accessed January 14, 2009).

  • M says:

    Oh, and to answer your other question, Emilee, David wasn’t restricted from working as an artist after his banishment. He built up a nice studio while he lived in Brussels and actually painted portraits of fellow exiles that were supporters of Napoleon!

  • M says:

    Here is an image of “The Grand Odalisque” by Ingres, in case any one is interested:


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.