Jacques-Louis David. Empire to Exile
Revolutions severely challenge visual artists, for when well-established lifestyles are suddenly abolished, only the supplest personalities remain productive. When pre-revolutionary institutions are restored, then surviving ex-revolutionaries must again adapt. Jacques-Louis David was extraordinarily good at handling shocking political transitions. Born in 1748, he was extremely successful under the old regime. During the Revolution he played an active radical role. He became a very influential, extremely well paid champion of Napoleon. And after Napoleon's final fall, this regicide created very original masterpieces in exile in Brussels, where he died in 1825.
For several decades David's earlier art has been much discussed. Thomas Crow and other commentators have explained how David's 1780s paintings anticipated the Revolution. And more recently, Dorothy Johnson and some French scholars have closely studied David's post-revolutionary art. This book is the catalogue for an exhibition organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, the first show of David's post-revolutionary art.
Had David been guillotined in 1793, like some of his fellow radicals, how much easier it would be to tell his story. Historians would explain how a privileged radical became a victim of the revolution he had supported. David the survivor who championed Napoleon is more difficult to understand. The relation between the Emperor and his chosen artist was close. On January 4, 1808 Napoleon spent an hour examining The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine. Images of the emperor and his wars were important propaganda for a ruthless dictatorship, which needed to legitimatize itself. And after Napoleon fell, the aged David showed an astonishing capacity to adapt to a totally new situation, working without support from a court or a sympathetic art world. His late portraits present striking images of family and friends, foreign sympathizers with the revolution, and a number of Napoleon's former generals.
The politically committed David had no real successors. Other major artists lived through revolutions. But neither Delacroix nor Courbet nor Manet provided a visual record of their political concerns equal in quality and influence to David's. Nor did any of the artists who supported the Russian Revolution play an active political role like his. Stalin had no David. Was David so concerned with his career that he was unable to recognize that Napoleon destroyed some legitimate achievements of the revolution? Judging by his art, he seems to have genuinely admired the emperor. "Is it possible, in evoking David during the Consulate and Empire, to refuse a moralizing tone and somehow avoid presenting him as a cynic" (20)? David was a gifted hustler, very good at promoting himself under the monarchy, during the revolution, in collaboration with Napoleon and even in exile.
But there is no reason to think that he was insincere. He remained enough of a French patriot to refuse the offer "to settle in Berlin as first painter to the King of Prussia" (295). Unlike the canonical modernism of Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists, David's late art still looks mysterious. His French successors showed scenes from contemporary life. David, by contrast, alludes to the present in his history paintings by using classical myths. In the 1820s "many young painters were persuaded that the spirit of [End Page 389] the antique and the heroism of modern life were compatible" (192). When Baudelaire's "Le Peintre de la vie moderne" deconstructed that way of thinking, David's late art became hard to understand.
Alexander, Apelles, and Campaspe (1813-23) shows Alexander the Great giving up his mistress to Apelles, who had fallen in love with her. Is this an image about self-control, with Alexander a stand in for Napolean? The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis (1818) shows the moment when Ulysses's son must leave the nymph to rejoin his father. "Because it insisted on the virtues of humanity and moderation," this scene "was interpreted as a veiled critique of monarchical absolutism and often invoked by Enlightenment philosophers" (247). Is this picture a commentary on David's own situation? Unruly desire, that is a frequent theme of this art. David uses traditional subjects in uncannily untraditional ways. Our postmodern skepticism about the legibility of narratives facilitates "a paradoxically open non-reading" of David's "mysterious scenes" (266). As David the radical challenged scholars who lived the upheavals of 1968, so David the post-revolutionary commands attention now when our political and artistic situation has changed