French Revolution’s official artist

“Death of Marat” by Jacques Louis David.

No one’s neck was safe from the guillotine during the years following the French Revolution in 1789.  This period was called “The Terror,” for good reason.  The French motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity” came to mean chaos, peril and revenge as friends turned on friends to save their own lives and people at all levels, from statesmen to poor shopkeepers, were executed, sometimes for ridiculous reasons.

     In those terrible years the painter Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) grew to power in the Revolutionary Convention.  He voted for the death of his former patron, Louis XVI, and for this action some of his friends never forgave him and his wife left him.   We can deduce from his pre-Revolution paintings, which are full of symbolism, that David may have believed France must be purified of tyranny; no matter what the cost.  There is no sign that he was anguished by his activities on behalf of the revolution.  In fact, when an acquaintance told him that 80 people had been guillotined that day, he remarked “Is that all?”  But we know that he was not an unfeeling man.  For example, at great cost to himself he supported the aging artist Fragonard, who had helped David when he was poor and unknown by giving him commissions. 

     As part of his duties as official artist of the Revolution, he stationed himself along the route of the tumbrels (open carts) to sketch victims on their way to the guillotine.  Probably the saddest of these drawings is a 1793 sketch of the “Widow Capet”, the name the revolutionaries gave to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.  The young queen may have been vain, weak and foolish during her reign, but David’s drawing shows her going to her death with courage and dignity.  Her beauty is gone, destroyed by her horrific and biased trial, condemnation, imprisonment, illness, execution of her husband and loss of her child.  As Johnathon Jones of the “Guardian” notes in a December 2002 essay on this sketch, This drawing is an acknowledgement of the Revolution’s violence, in which David is complicit. David is an honest extremist. He believes in the inevitability of this execution so absolutely that he can stand back and feel a tweak of empathy.”

     David’s duties included painting scenes of the revolution and staging public ceremonies.  He was also assigned to see that all hints of royalty were removed from even the most ordinary things — for example, playing cards were redesigned to eliminate the knave, king and queen.  Even the art world was not exempt, the Royal Academy and its schools were abolished.. 

     And just to be safe, he changed his own style away from pre-Revolutionary classicism to realism.  Most of his pictures of the period are not the most interesting ones of his career, but in one picture he rose above himself.  This is the “Death of Marat.”  Marat was David’s personal friend and a power of the new regime.  Due to a serious skin condition, Marat spent much of his time in a medicinal bath, which he set up as a makeshift office, with pens, paper and books beside it.  A young woman named Charlotte Corday, who was outraged by the excesses of the Terror, gained an appointment with Marat by saying she had vital information to reveal.  Alone with Marat, she stabbed the helpless man.  She was arrested on the spot and later guillotined.

Sketch of Marie Antoinette going to her death, by Jacques Louis David.

     A dead man in a bathtub may not seem like a good subject for a painting.  But David, channeling his grief into icy calm, created a classical, restrained painting that still has the power to stir the emotions.

     David eventually came under suspicion himself.  He supported Robespierre, who was tried and executed because his terrorist activities became intolerably abusive.  David would probably have suffered the same fate, but his trial was delayed long enough for the judges and councils to cool down.  It was a terrifying time for the artist.  There are eyewitness reports of David on the stand, a once-powerful man reduced to a sweating, mumbling wreck begging for his life and denying his connection with Robespierre.

     David’s life was spared.  He was imprisoned in the Luxembourg Palace, used for the overflow of prisoners.  His “cell” was a room with a view of the gardens, where his children were brought by their governess so he could watch them play.  His friends and students supplied him with art materials.  Upon his release he withdrew from politics, going back to painting. 

     Eventually his paintings again made him the sensation of Paris, and when Napoleon came to power; David found himself in politics again. When Napoleon’s power waned, David tried to support him, but signed petitions which made it wise for him to flee the country when Napoleon fell.  Fortunately, he was wealthy enough to live comfortably in Brussels, where at a distance, he remained the most powerful force in French painting.  In his semi-retirement he even began painting for his own pleasure instead of for the support of politicians.  Jacques Louis David died in 1825 after one of the most convoluted careers in both art and political history.

Published by on August 2015. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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