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The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799

We end our Neoclassical artist "trilogy" with the man who pioneered it and also was the teacher of Ingres, Jacques-Louis David, who was born on August 30 1748. His style is not only Classical and dramatic (to the point of being theatrical at times) but highly patriotic and philosophical, considering the turbulent times he lived in. As a court painter to Napoleon himself and deeply immersed in the French Revolution, David was quite active politically, influencing people and politics with his art. His influence was notable enough to even affect the public opinion of some who were sent to the guillotine, including none other than Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. One would think that there would be plenty of material here for a very interesting biopic or movie, but it seems that David's reputation as an artist is only as a French symbol of national greatness. Many consider his work formal and stiff, unnatural even though technically dazzling. For an interesting brief documentary on David, I recommend watching Simon Schama's Power of Art (one of the eight artists represented in the series).

In The Intervention of the Sabine Women above, David creates a distinct foreground, middleground and background, using the thrust of swords in the air both as a military element necessary to the painting and as atmospheric perspective against the warm hues of the distant castle. Hersilia, wife of Romulus is dressed in white, throwing herself between her husband and her father in an attempt to stop the brutal fighting. Note the accented use of red against these warm skin tones. David stages the scene with the flair for the theatrical with body language that is clear and unmistakable: Romulus standing proud with his spear and shield, which in itself creates a visual focal point to the story. David was keen on history, and this painting was symbolic of the chaos in his own time. He conceived the idea for this while being imprisoned himself for supporting at the time a "rogue" politician. David was a master of large scale, multiple figure scenes such as this which is incredibly complex to compose. More about the background of the painting here.

Portrait of Madame de Verninac, 1799

Look how David manages to capture the relaxed expression of this woman while still maintaining a Classical aesthetic. Fashion was changing during this era also, when women were not wearing tight corsets anymore to embrace this Classical look, complete with Hellenistic-like hair. David's palette combines warm hues of the the chair and yellow sashes with the neutral white gown against a greenish background. Elegant yet natural.

Mars désarmé par Vénus, 1824

Considered by many to be David's last great painting, this masterpiece was completed over a period of three years. Mars and Venus, along with the three graces are floating in the clouds with a large Greek temple looms behind them. The incredible drapery of Mars' robe spills down the chaise longue to his sandaled feet, where Cupid undoes his left sandal. Behind them the graces are doing their best to make Mars more comfortable, one takes his shield and bow, another has his helmet, and a third brings him wine in a goblet. Venus offers him peace with a wreath of flowers to replace his helmet, while her other hand is on his lap seductively. Note the two doves "kissing" in an area right beside his manhood. Mars seems to be relinquishing his sword to Venus, but he looks skeptically at her. This painting seems to comment on the impossibility of lasting peace, that this scene floats in the clouds suggests that even red-blooded generals or highest ranking men of war who love women as much as fighting cannot easily choose between the two. There is no adrenaline-rush in having earthly desires handed to someone who wants to conquer them. Indeed, the only object that is "erect" in this painting is the spear in his right hand, which he does not surrender.

Death of Marat, 1793

David's most iconic work, this is a unique historical event that was seized by David's imagination to be something remembered by all of France. Read more about the history behind the painting here. David was a close friend of Marat, who was a journalist during the turbulent Revolution who fought for rights of the poor. His impassioned speeches and writings helped to cause the September Massacres, a mob of killings that occurred in Paris during 1792. Charlotte Corday was a member of an opposing political group from the Revolution that saw him as an extremist and stabbed him in his own room. David creates a more theatrical version to emphasize the skin condition that Marat had, needing frequent bathing to relieve his pain. What is interesting visually is how David arranged the composition horizontally with the wooden table as a vertical element that leads the eye to the letter in his hand. Marat's limp right hand with feather points to the wooden table with names engraved in the side, creating a circle. This painting is often compared to the pietà, except more tragic in that noone is there to hold him.

Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and the Empress Josephine in the Notre-Dame de Paris, 1807

An incredible scene commemorating Napoleon, this composition has a true sense of scale with bold vertical elements of the architecture balanced by the horizontal arrangement of the people. It is a very formal painting, to be sure, and political in nature, but one doesn't always think of how long it must have taken to compose and paint all of these figures and their costumes. Each figure also has a unique facial expression and pose. It is simple and yet incredibly complex.

Oath of the Horatii, 1784

Another iconic painting that made David a giant of Neoclassicism. Read more about the history behind it here. David's imagination once again goes to the theatrical, yet what intrigues me about this is how the chiaroscuro of the three brothers here have a distinctly Baroque character to them, even though standing straight. Here David's drapery skills, realistic skin tones, deep shadows, graceful women, and a perfectly harmonious composition seems to suggest a new era in painting that Neoclassicism could become.

Belisarius Asking for Alms, 1781

One of my very favourite paintings, this has a realistic feel that evokes a more Baroque sensibility than Neoclassicism. The use of perspective gives the scene a less formal quality, especially compared to Oath of the Horatii. The double handed surprise of the soldier in the background who recognizes Belisarius verges on the melodramatic, to be sure, yet it clearly indicates the fall in status of a once-great general and "last of the Romans". Compare with this version by Francois-Andre Vincent. Despite the legend of Belisarius being reduced to a beggar, what counts here is the willingness to suspend our disbelief and experience this scene. David pulls us into his theatre, and no matter what he conjures our senses are always dazzled, and his symbolism lingers in our thoughts long after the image is out of sight. David's genius has so much for us to learn from.


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