PRINT January 2005


Jacques-Louis David

THE LATE WORK OF JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID (1748–1825) has not been showered with scholarly attention. It has proved difficult for art historians to muster interpretive enthusiasm for the vast ceremonial canvases produced during Napoleon’s reign, such as The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon, 1805–1807. Nor has it been easy to understand the merits of the seemingly vacuous and mannered Neoclassicism of David’s paintings from Belgium, where, following the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, he was exiled from 1816 until his death. Neither the grandes machines of Napoleonic rule nor the overrehearsed canvases of the Belgian period seem comparable to the striking inventiveness of earlier works, like The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, which took Paris by storm when it was shown at the Salon of 1785, and The Death of Marat, 1793, a revolutionary icon so novel in its approach to painting that some scholars insist it singlehandedly inaugurated modernism.

Yet if his postrevolutionary works alone would probably not have secured David’s position as the textbooks’ first modern master, they do pose some interesting questions. The exhibition “Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile” should soon provide a chance to address them, first at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and later at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. At the Getty, the exhibition will be complemented by two concurrent presentations based almost entirely on the museum’s own collections: “Drawn to Rome: French Neoclassical Sketchbooks and Prints” and “A Revolutionary Age: Drawing in Europe 1770–1820,” which includes three important drawings by David. But it is “Empire to Exile” that will for the first time treat an American audience to such a comprehensive display of David’s work. Combining fifty-one paintings and drawings, the exhibition draws largely on the collections of stateside museums, which own many of David’s important late paintings, but it also includes a number of international loans and some works newly resurfaced from private collections. As such, it promises to provide a better sense of this important but disregarded part of David’s career, facilitating a more fully integrated account of his oeuvre and its significance, as well as prompting discussion of key interpretive problems. First, there is the vexing question of the relation between art and politics in the wake of the French Revolution. David’s commitment to the Napoleonic cause has long deserved to be considered in more nuanced terms than mere opportunism. Nor does the oft-invoked notion of art as propaganda adequately describe the aesthetic aims and effects of his entire pictorial production under the Consulate and the Empire. As for David’s Belgian production, it remains unclear whether it should be seen as regressive or, on the contrary, radically experimental in purpose.

Judging from the exhibition catalogue, David’s history painting will be represented primarily by the Brussels output, without the inclusion of the major Napoleonic commissions like the vast Consecration and The Distribution of the Eagles, 1810, from the French museums’ collections. The opportunity to see most, if not all, of the important paintings from David’s exile along with the drawings represents the major asset of this exhibition, allowing us to reconsider the key issue of the aesthetic effects of the artist’s banishment and the more general question of exile as a specific kind of social and cultural, as well as psychological, condition of artmaking. To be sure, these effects are neither obvious nor easy to assess. If we are to trust David’s own pronouncements, exile offered him a fertile ground for the cultivation of his art. He felt reinvigorated: “Me, I work as though I was only thirty; I love my art the way I did when I was sixteen, and I will die, my friend, brush in hand,” he wrote from Brussels in 1817 to his former pupil, Antoine-Jean Gros.

But David’s Belgian compositions do not readily betray signs of aesthetic rejuvenation. Rather, in their return to antiquity, they seem to signal a move backward, with some inflections. The mythological themes are intimate in focus and deal not with heroic actions but with affective reactions, especially love. The unifying style and tone of these paintings is difficult to define but has been described as an uneasy mixture of realism and idealism. This is most evident in David’s Cupid and Psyche, 1817, a postcoital scene featuring the god of love as a dark-skinned, down-to-earth adolescent slipping away from his sleeping lover with a sly smile. Psyche, in turn, appears thoroughly unreal, a white- bleached female incarnation of the beau idéal. Such striking incongruity is also present, if differently, in David’s other Belgian paintings, whether in the compositional and affective disjunction between the figures in The Anger of Achilles, 1819, or in the uncanny motif of the intrusive dog with a leering gaze in The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis, 1818. These more or less sub- tle incongruities may speak of the exiled position of their painter, that is, not only of his geographical displacement but also of his cultural and psychic distance, his disconnection from the center of meaning.

David’s portraits will surely be another of the exhibition’s chief attractions, and the sheer accumulation of them may generate new insight into this significant but understudied aspect of his oeuvre. Among the highlights are the Getty’s stunningly simple 1804 canvas Portrait of Suzanne Le Pelletier de Saint-Fargeau, nicknamed Mademoiselle la Nation, the orphaned daughter of the “martyr of liberty” whom David had painted during the Revolution; the two portraits of the Comte de Turenne, an insolent looking Napoleonic officer; and a recently rediscovered full-figure canvas, Portrait of Juliette de Villeneuve, painted by David in 1824, a year before his death. (Regrettably, an important portrait of David’s fellow exile, former deputy to the Convention, and regicide Emmanuel Sieyès will not be on view.) With respect to these portraits, the most intriguing issue may again be how, if at all, David’s practice changed between the period of the Consulate and his exile. In the wake of the Revolution he developed a more direct and intimate approach to likeness, with sparse attributes and an enhanced sense of subjective presence. Yet under the Directoire, he also introduced a new type of highly formalized portrait. At the Getty, the subsequent fate of these two models of likeness should finally become clearer from the rich display of David’s later output.

Ewa Lajer-Burcharth is professor of history of art and architecture at Harvard University and is the author of Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David After the Terror.