- View From the Luxembourg: David and the French Landscape Tradition
Je suis dans un abandon total, je sens combien votre amitié m’était chère, je vous cherche en vain les soirées, et je ne vous retrouve plus. Je gémis seul; une consolation me reste, c’est que vous êtes plus heureux que moi; vous jouissez au moins de votre liberté.1
In 1794, while imprisoned in the Luxembourg Palace for his Revolutionary activities, Jacques-Louis David painted a landscape scene from his upper floor prison window (Fig. 1).2 Known in the literature as the Vue presumée du jardin du Luxembourg, the painting’s subject matter and attribution are fraught with controversy. At the forefront of the discussion lies scholars’ hesitation to view David within the French landscape tradition. David is known as the father of Neoclassicism and, Eugène Delacroix would argue, the father of Modernism because he painted moralizing depictions of men and women from the classical past as well as grand events from contemporary French history. First and foremost, David was a history painter, yet what could be learned about David and his prolific career if we looked beyond the prescribed academic hierarchy of painting in the eighteenth century? What could be gained concerning David and his oeuvre by investigating the artist’s engagement with landscape?
It is the purpose of this article to examine David’s landscapes anew, demonstrating that he was conversant with the genre throughout his career. [End Page 207] I will focus on the attribution of David’s View from the Luxembourg from a new perspective by reexamining the painting within the context of the artist’s little-studied Roman drawings of landscape views. In these Roman drawings, sketched en plein aire, David often emphasized perspective, atmospheric conditions, and the transient effects of light and shadow on the Italian landscape and surrounding architectural structures. While it is reasonable to assume that these landscape drawings were the result of the Academy’s prescribed curriculum, I will demonstrate that their subtle beauty, enigmatic qualities, and interest in the transience of nature distinguish them from mere works of artistic pedagogy. I will also pay close attention to the landscape sketches of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), the renowned late eighteenth-century French landscape painter, who shared David’s interest in nature’s effects on landscape and the built environment. The influence of Valenciennes’s aesthetic, coupled with a deep knowledge of and appreciation for the French landscape tradition, had a significant effect on the way David came to view and utilize landscape in his work.
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The View from the Luxembourg is organized in a geometric fashion. This is important to emphasize because David’s preference for the rational, the ordered, and the visually restrained characterize the artist’s mature style. By the late 1790s, David’s compositions appear almost formulaic in their [End Page 208] rigid arrangement of space. The painting, marked by its high viewpoint, is divided in half horizontally by a row of mature trees that extend across the center of the canvas and intersect with another row of trees at left. In the foreground, this horizontality is echoed by the dilapidated fence that outlines the stark confines of the prison yard. Within this vast empty space, antique philosophers actively engage with one another while a solitary young figure dressed in white walks along the inside of the fence. Another figure is identifiable on the left of the painting, also walking, although she is not enclosed within the prison yard. Rather, the woman, shown with a pot on her head, strolls freely down a path in between the fence and an adjacent row of trees. The only architecture represented in the painting is a group of white Italianate buildings on the right and a campanile-like structure in the center of the canvas, barely...