The dangerous beauty of Jacques-Louis David

You are young, you are overflowing with ambition, you want to change the world; Are you an artist. You have been admitted to the most prestigious institute in your field and have won the favor of the best collector in the country. But your country is plagued by social inequalities and galloping inflation. Political crises follow one another. Is art enough now? Or should you transform your art into something else – something more committed, more dogmatic, closer to propaganda?

And when the world changes, how far will you go? Perhaps even in the corridors of power, where you will adopt a zeal that no one expected. When your allies execute their enemies, you encourage them. When they themselves are murdered, you will glorify them as martyrs. You’ll end up in jail, pleading for paintbrushes and pencils, and reappear in a land eager to forget what you’ve done.

In 2022, our museums and streaming services are delivering daily selling points about the “power” and “relevance” of culture. Our discourse reduces art to the most boring political messages. It all sounds like children’s story time in the shadow of Jacques-Louis David, the artist-moralist who portrayed the French Revolution with deadly purity. In the 1780s he eradicated the levity and joy of Rococo in severe history paintings drawn from classical examples. Then, when the Bastille fell, he channeled this Roman rectitude into the images of the news, and even into political life.

We’re not talking about a creative soul who’s been to a protest or two. With David, we are talking about the greatest artist of his generation, the most influential for the next, who was – in the original sense of the term – a terrorist. Friend and ally of Robespierre throughout the Reign of Terror, David sat in the revolutionary parliament and joined its most formidable committees. He would both design the new republic and sign the death warrants of real and perceived counter-revolutionaries. (Cancel the culture, of course.) In 1792, when the King’s fate came before the National Convention, Citizen David proudly voted to send Louis XVI to the guillotine.

“Jacques-Louis David: radical draftsman”, a momentous and serious exhibition opening this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brings together more than 80 works on paper by this motor of French neo-classicism, from his youthful Roman studies to his uncompromising Jacobean years, in prison then in Napoleon’s cabinet, and until his definitive exile in Brussels.

It’s a scientific feat, with loans from two dozen institutions and never-before-seen findings from private collections. It will enthrall scholars who wish to map the way David constructed his robust canvases from preparatory sketches and drapery studies. But for the public, “Radical Draftsman” has a more direct importance. This show forces us – and just in time – to think seriously about the real power of images (and image makers) and the price of political and cultural certainty. What is beautiful and what is virtuous? And when virtue embraces terror, what good is beauty really?

Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris in 1748 into a bourgeois family. As a teenager, he studied under Joseph-Marie Vien, which imbued soft, pastoral Rococo with classical themes. Young David was obsessed with antiquity, and in 1771, against Vien’s advice, he applied for the Prix de Rome, a prize that came with a year’s Italian residency.

He failed. Too young. He tried again the following year, again failed, and threatened to starve to death. He tried again in 1773. Failed again. David would not back down. On his fourth try he entered – and in his student sketchbooks here, drawings of the Capitol, the Forum and busts of emperors and gods indicate how greedily David absorbed the Roman example.

In Rome, David would take a dramatic turn in the formation of his youth. The characters in his drawings became tougher, more sculptural. Themes pivoted from mythology to Roman history: in particular scenes of patriotism in the early republic, which he preferred to the decadent empire. The drawings here depict parents killing parents or mothers sending their sons to war. In his first masterpiece, “The Oath of the Horatiithree brothers stretch out their arms, swearing to give their lives for the Roman Republic. Their bodies are solid marble. Their sisters, sobbing and fainting in a corner, are ignored. Duty first.

“The Oath of the Horatii”, made on royal commission and completed in 1785, made David the unequaled leader of the French school. Four drawings show how he developed this new composition. Look at the harsh diagonals of the Horaces’ limns and the swirling fabrics of their sisters’ dresses. Note the narrow palette of stone gray and blood red in one color drawing, though the final work in Paris is even darker. There are also a few false starts. Two macabre drawings here depict a later episode in Horatii’s story: a brother murders a sister as punishment for her sorrow as a woman.

Throughout the Met show, assembled by curator Perrin Stein and accompanied by a hefty catalog, three-, four-, and five-sheet tableaux reveal how David assembled these rigorous, multi-figure scenes. He would start with sketches, finding the placement of arms and legs, often working from the nude to get the anatomy right. Then came broader studies of fabrics and clothing. Small oils too, on occasion. The resulting paintings are absent – except for those of the Met”Death of Socrates», another tale of virtue and renunciation, which is preceded by four drawings. The philosopher is about to drink the hemlock, offered by a disciple who cannot bear to look.

You are an artist and the year is 1789; a baguette costs almost a day’s wages, although you can still eat cake. David completed another picture of Roman republican virtue that year:The lictors bring Brutus the bodies of his sons», represented through eight drawings, in which a father refuses to mourn his dead children who had supported the monarchy. (Between ideals and family, the choice is clear: kill your children.)

But something is happening at Versailles, where the commoners of the Estates General have separated themselves from the clergy and nobility and declared themselves France‘s legitimate national assembly. One day in June, they find the doors of their meeting place locked. They get nervous that Louis’ army might attack, so a member named Dr. Guillotin – and remember that name! – offers to move from the palace to a nearby tennis court.

It would be up to David – “the author of ‘Brutus’ and ‘Horatii’”, intoned another Jacobin, “that French patriot whose genius anticipated the Revolution” – to immortalize the sequel. The leader of the assembly calls a vote to establish a constitution. Commoners stretch out their arms in pledge, like the heroic Horatii. Liberal priests and aristocrats join them, while the little people cheers from the clerestories. History painting? Now we live in history, and the impact is bodily: witness the young Robespierre, center right, clutching his chest in Republican orgasm.

David’s presentation drawing “The Oath of the Tennis Court” is the most elaborate sheet of this exhibition. But there would be no final painting. The assembly leader in the center would go to the guillotine. And there were so many other things to do, once the king and his wife were arrested and a new republic was proclaimed. David joined the Committee of Public Instruction (think Ministry of Education meets Ministry of Propaganda), as well as the Committee of General Security, which monitored the Terror. He had the old academy dissolved and launched artistic competitions to encourage revolutionary fervor.

He designed new uniforms, on the Roman model, for judges and parliamentarians. He organized huge parades for child martyrs and festivals for a new state religion that glorified an abstract supreme being. And when the new republic needed heroes, it turned to him. Journalist Jean-Paul Marat, crusader or hysterical according to opinions, lies dead in the bath in the painted version of David’s supreme act of propaganda. (“The Death of Marat” was exhibited in the Louvre on the afternoon of October 16, 1793. Marie Antoinette’s head fell into a bucket earlier that morning, although David’s sketch of his last hour is absent from the Met.) In the densely hatched Marat drawing of this broadcast, David lets the murdered journalist’s eyes open slightly. The drooping cheek, the pursed lips, as if Marat were still speaking in the name of the people.

He had turned his art into agitprop, and what of it? It was surely the natural extension of the “Horaces”, the “Socrates” and the “Brutus”: art as a device for inculcating public virtue. And if the painter was part of the killing machine, that was natural too. Virtue and terror were now cultural values. The artist must experience them in public. And if you thought otherwise, well, watch your neck.

You are an artist, things are going well and we are on 9 Thermidor Year Two — i.e. July 27, 1794 — ahead of your revolutionary companions changed the calendar. On the day of Robespierre’s fall, David swore to follow him in death with a verse worthy of his “Socrates”: “If you drink hemlock, I will drink it with you.” But David was conveniently away at the guillotine the next day. Arrested a week later, he begged for his life with a curious defence: I’m just an artist. One of the most extraordinary feats of this exhibition is the assemblage of six drawings David made of his fellow Jacobins in prison, all in profile, in rounded frames like Roman heroes on coins. On one of them, we can read the inscription “David faciebat in vinculis”. I did this chained.

In prison, he began to draw “The intervention of the Sabines», his first major post-revolutionary painting: a love scene pacifying rival armies, the Roman model of French reconciliation. But in 1799, when the “Sabines” appeared, a Corsican general had channeled the ideals of the Revolution into personal supremacy. David, having spent the previous decade producing spectacles of radical equality, would become Napoleon’s official court painter and glorify the new emperor with a 32-foot-long panorama of his coronation. In this gigantic work, Napoleon crowns the kneeling Empress Josephine, but the drawings here show the original plan: he crowns himself with one hand.

Perhaps David’s revolutionary fervor had tamed with age. Maybe he was just an opportunist, who wouldn’t give up power and fame once he got a taste of it. Be that as it may, with the Bourbon Restoration of 1815 the artist ran out of moves – and in exile in Brussels he drew delicate, not to say sappy portraits of nobles and members of the family.

Before this imperative exhibition, the end of David’s career had always seemed depressing to me. Here, however, I felt a new sympathy for someone who no longer knew what to draw when his moment had passed. Because David, so brilliant and so cold, is the ultimate testimony that culture and politics only marry easily when do not do have power. You are an artist, you want to change the world. But what are you going to do if you succeed?

Jacques-Louis David: Radical draftsman
Until May 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710,