Eugene Delacroix characterized Jacques Louis David as the founding father of the modern school of art. His challenging of established aesthetic vision, bold experiments in subject and style, and at the end of his career, mythological compositions that explore complex and nuanced psychological states, lend credence to the view of David as an artist dragged by destiny, and perhaps against his will, into the modern era. His political compositions aside, his vision of classical antiquity itself came to be informed by contemporaneous interest in scientific discoveries concerning human psychology and physiology.
His friend, fellow Jacobin club President Marat’s assassination, was simply a symbol in an atmosphere that was becoming more and more hysterical, and when a painter like Jacques Louis David is judged, this inflamed public atmosphere must be remembered.He lived during a tumultuous cultural, social, political and intellectual transformation in his lifetime. He made no effort to save certain of his friends from the guillotine, but the reason could have been that he was convinced that they deserved it, not that he was afraid to risk his own neck. His ruthless treating of the Academy, which after all had treated him well for more years than it had, in his opinion, treated him badly, can be easily explained as a personal vendetta. But it may also have been the result of his conviction that its system was inhibiting to art, especially an art that he sincerely believed must serve new purposes. But it is difficult to forgive him and his colleagues for the the execution of the ineffectual young king who had been his patron. David voted for the death of Louis XVI, and it was on this occasion that his wife left him.
Two years later, in 1794, David’s triumphant progress suffered an interruption that threatened to be permanent. His friend Robespierre fell from power and went to the scaffold where he had sent so many others. David said that if necessary he would share a cup of hemlock with Robespierre, a form of classical suicide that he had celebrated in his painting ‘The Death of Socrates”, but the guillotine was another matter.
David came to trial and is reported to have conducted himself badly on the stand, mumbling and sweating in his defense. But neither the mumble or the sweat can really be held against a man whose speech was impaired and whose life was in danger. He was imprisoned for four months, released, and then in 1795, rearrested and imprisoned for another two months. David spent his time planning a new picture as the start of a new career. His friends supplied him with materials for his work, and his wife forgave him.
The new picture was ”The Sabines”, too often referred to with careless inaccuracy as ”The Rape of the Sabines”. David did not choose the episode of the Sabine women’s abduction by the Romans but the subsequent one, when, having been taken to wife and begun families with their captors,the Sabine women intervened between their Roman husbands and their brothers and fathers who had come to rescue them. The Sabine woman Hersilie is shown at the center of a huge canvas with one arm stretched out in appeal toward the Roman Romulus and the other toward the Sabine Tatius, who pause at the moment of conflict, while other figures are disposed around them in an exceptionally orderly delineation of climactic confusion.
The Revolution having failed of the nobility of the Roman republic, David now made every effort to minimize the importance of his Revolutionary paintings and decided to devote himself to pure art. But his painting was again interpreted as a political allegory. The ”Sabines” became a symbol of the new conciliatory mood in France, an appeal to the warring factions to pull themselves away from one another’s throats for the good of the nation.
David exhibited the picture for a fee, publishing a long defense of this unconventional practice and defending also, the nudity of his warriors, which he imagined to be in the Greek tradition. Greek glory and grace, as they were then envisioned, now preoccupied him at the cost of Roman grandeur, and although ”The Sabines” is a chilly picture, it nonetheless seems a decidedly sensuous one in comparison with ”The Oath of the Horatii”
The admission fees brought David a small fortune, with which he bought a farm-estate, but ”The Sabines” did more than secure him a fortune and a new place in popular favor. Importantly, Napoleon was much impressed by it. Napoleon,s private taste in art ran to a more sentimental style, preferably with lascivious overtones, but he recognized in David the perfect artist as propagandist for the image he was developing of himself as a counterpart of the Roman emperors of conquest. He never gave David the dictatorial powers he had had during the Revolution, but he showered him with honors and David became again, in effect, the head of a school of official art.
David was still interested in the re-creation of the ancient world as he imagined it. This, although his painting had become more graceful, with an increased concern for such gentle subjects as love. His influence on fashion and decoration can hardly be overestimated. The Directoire and Empire styles are virtually his invention. Women imitated the gauzy costume of Hersilie in ”The Sabines” even to the extent of exposing their breasts. The pieces of furniture he had constructed from his designs, for use in his pictures and incidenuse in his studio, became the models for the decoration of fashionable rooms everywhere.
When Napoleon fell and the Bourbons were restored, David sent all his compromising pictures to his house in the country and was left as undisturbed as if he had never been a right hand man for the emperor. But when Napoleon re-entered Paris for his ephemeral reign of the Hundred Days, he saw David and in an incautious moment the painter signed the ”Acte additional”. As a result of this pledge of loyalty he was exiled in 1816 and spent the remaining nine years of his life in Brussels, where he died in 1825 at the age of seventy-seven.
He concluded his career with a canvas called ”Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces”. It shows an incredibly, almost mawkishly handsome nude Mars disposed upon a draped couch against the background of a classical frieze; except for clouds beneath his feet that identify the scene as Olympus, he might be in the house of the most beautiful of all Greek courtesans, the Venus who seductively leans toward him with one hand on his thigh.
In the tradition by which David’s other paintings were given political interpretations, this one could be interpreted as his final conclusion that war and violence, in the person of Mars, must inevitably yield to the charms of love and the arts. And one must admit that David’s life, if hardly a typical one, was at least a unique proof of that premise.
David understood narrative expression in numerous psychological terms, that is, historical episodes unfold as a result of complex and often conflicting motives, desires and emotions. Even as his painting evolved, there was always an emphasis on moral ambiguity which carried forward the complexity of melancholy into the psychology of myth.
The modern condition is portrayed by life as a paradox, a contradiction between a ‘will to change’ and the ‘dread of a world in which “all that is solid melts into air”’ Classicism and the beginning of the romantic era to which David contributed, has always had its value as a buttress against the sense of decay and uncertainty which permeated the ‘air’ of modernity, and yet was inherently defined by the anxiety against which it reacted. The embodiment of modernity involved both constructive and deconstructive impulses.The opposition between classicism and modernism has a venerable history in literature and the visual arts, with classicism linked to the model of tradition and modernism to the rhetoric of a break with precisely that tradition.
Modern classicism attributed to David was a philosophical and aesthetic shifts which, in part, reacted against the previous predilection for a sanitised asexual classicism.The two terms, supposedly mutually exclusive are actually part of a much wider and diverse phenomenon. David acted through a reempowered and modernised classicism, stopping short of a vision of a technological and sexualized future, which would have to wait until after the cataclysm WWI.At that point it would be come apparent that the real split was between autonomous art versus the ”vernacular modern” exemplified by popular and mass culture, disseminated through mass production and what Walter Benjamin would call its specific ”aura”. While classicism and modernism are usually seen as opposing ideas or movements,they do converge and the work of David evolved and pointed towards a reconciliation of these themes. In addition, his final works enjoined the complex relation between the process of cultural reinvention of self and the function of desire giving full value to his notion of ”abandoned psyche”.