Happy Birthday Jacques Louis David! NeoClassical Chameleon?

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was doing my first undergraduate degree, half of my double-major was in History and one of my ‘areas of focus’ was the French Revolution. Since the other half was Classicial History and Civilization, you can probably figure that I was greatly interested in the intersections between ancient history and the times of the Revolution, and especially in visual arts such as the works of Jacques Louis David. Today being the illustrious artist’s birthday, my various feeds and sources have scattered references to the artist, and of especial interest is that of the Metropolitan Museum, which has made  The Death of Socrates its Featured Artwork of the Day. I’m sure most folks have seen it:

from the Metropolitan Museum

It dates from 1787 and so comes from a time when the Revolution was still in its formulative stages. The work is sometimes brought out in the context of the Revolution as a comment on the power of the state to inflict penalties on folks who don’t merit such punishment. Interestingly, it comes a few years after another painting that will be familiar to Classicists and others, namely The Oath of the Horatii in the Louvre (1784):

Wikimedia Commons

This is a very interesting one in the context of the Revolution as it is sometimes taken as actually portraying a call to arms of sort. Perhaps ironically, the Oath of the Horatii was actually commissioned by the king and probably should be taken as an expression of obedience to the father figure/state/king. In other words, it isn’t really a Revolutionary sentiment and indeed, David is often referred to as a ‘chameleon’ because his loyalties seem to have changed frequently during those trouble times in France. As a Classicist, one might prefer the epithet ‘Alcibiades’ to ‘chameleon’. Whatever the case, poking around the Met’s website brought up a couple of other interesting items, especially given the dating of the above. Consider this little series … from 1787 (and obviously roughly contemporary with the Socrates piece) is Study for The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons:

Metropolitan Museum

Here we have the Consul Brutus, sitting at the base of a statue of Roma which has FUGAT[]S REGIBUS scrawled on its base. The scene comes after he has sentenced his own sons to death for their participation in a plan to restore the Tarquins … as described by Livy (2.5 via Project Gutenberg):

After plundering the tyrants’ effects, the traitors were condemned and capital punishment inflicted. Their punishment was the more remarkable, because the consulship imposed on the father the office of punishing his own children, and him who should have been removed as a spectator, fortune assigned as the person to exact the punishment. Young men of the highest quality stood tied to a stake; but the consul’s sons attracted the eyes of all the spectators from the rest of the criminals, as from persons unknown; nor did the people pity them more on account of the severity of the punishment, than the horrid crime by which they had deserved it. “That they, in that year particularly, should have brought themselves to betray into the hands of Tarquin, formerly a proud tyrant, and now an exasperated exile, their country just delivered, their father its deliverer, the consulate which took its rise from the family of the Junii, the fathers, the people, and whatever belonged either to the gods or the citizens of Rome.”The consuls seated themselves in their tribunal, and the lictors, being despatched to inflict punishment, strip them naked, beat them with rods, and strike off their heads. Whilst during all this time, the father, his looks and his countenance, presented a touching spectacle, the feelings of the father bursting forth occasionally during the office of superintending the public execution. Next after the punishment of the guilty, that there might be a striking example in either way for the prevention of crime, a sum of money was granted out of the treasury as a reward to the discoverer; liberty also and the rights of citizenship were granted him. He is said to have been the first person made free by the Vindicta; some think even that the term vindicta is derived from him. After him it was observed as a rule, that those who were set free in this manner were supposed to be admitted to the rights of Roman citizens.

Returning to the painting, in the background we see the lictors (bearing the fasces) bringing in the body of the executed Brutus (Tiberius) while the focus, of course, is on the helplessness of all the women relatives in all this. But this gets more interesting, because a year later (if the date is correct), we get another version, also at the Met —The Return of Brutus to his House:

Metropolitan Museum

If the date is correct (and I can’t help but wonder if this study preceded the previous work) we might see that the father figure/Brutus is becoming a figure more shrouded in darkness. The ‘living victims’ are becoming a greater focus. Is David developing a comment on the social effects of the Revolution and how it must have torn families apart (as so many revolutions do). Is he moving away from ‘obedience to the father’ at any cost to actually considering the cost? Or is this just an aspect of David’s ‘chameleonism’? Of course, the study resulted in another painting in the Louvre – The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons which probably isn’t as well known as many of David’s other works:

Wikimedia Commons

Following the development, Brutus — and especially Roma — is practically completely in darkness; the corpse of his son is no longer draped and there are streams of blood on the legs. Interestingly, the lictors seem to have lost their fasces, and have gone from being executioners to being merely pallbearers. The scene has become a bit more complex and seems to be treading a fine line between being pro- and anti-Revolution, which probably is a testament to David’s skills as an artist and/or commentator on the human condition than anything related to being a ‘chameleon’. He speaks to both sides.

By way of conclusion, I’ll stop my amateur art historical ramblings and point folks to an excellent Art History Unstuffed podcast (which mentions some of the works above) on the work of David:

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