Sunday, May 27, 2018

Jacques-Louis David’s Artistic Revolution

From Cherwell:
Revolutionary France was a troubling time to be an artist. ‘The Declaration of the Rights of the Man’ declared an end to censorship. Yet Robespierre’s terror saw the blood of countless artists stain the Place de Revolution. The rules were less clear but in many ways state control over the arts remained unchanged. But the state didn’t just erase art, it also sponsored its creation.

Enter Jacques-Louis David, married to a royalist and a member of the artistic elite who became the de facto artist of the revolution. David’s great talent was his ability to take stories that were known but distort how audiences felt about them. We can see this in David’s neoclassical style through which he depicted the same characters but with new emotions.

Take his painting ‘The Oath of the Horatii’, presented in the Paris Salon in 1785. The painting depicted a narrative known by the citizens of Paris: two groups of men, the Horatii and the Curatii, were selected to fight in order to resolve a conflict between Rome and Alba. On the left of the painting we see the oath taking place, presented in the geometric lines of the Horatii. On the right we see the women, the sisters of the Horatii and the wives of the Curatii, weeping at the fate of their loved ones. In the period dramatizations of the story there is little reference to this oath and the selection of the combatants is usually depicted as the result of aristocratic whims. Here David paints a world where the state is worth the ultimate sacrifice.

But perhaps the message here is too subtle. ‘The Oath of the Horatii’ was, after all, accepted into the Paris Salon and David continued to receive royal commissions after its release. To see David’s true political masterstroke, we must look later in his career. On 13th July 1793 revolutionary journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed in his own bathtub by journalist Charlotte Corday. (Read more.)

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