Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jacques- Louis David - The Master of Neoclassicim

Jacques-Louis David, Self Portrait, 1794
(Musee du Louvre)
Jacques-Louis David was born into an upper class family with connections in the Academie  royale d'architecture (Royal Academy of Architecture) and was supposed to study to be either a lawyer or an architect.  But he was adamant about becoming an artist.  His father had died when he was nine years old leaving his education in the care of his uncles who themselves were architects.

He started his studies at the Academie de peinture et de sculpture but was soon disillusioned with the constraints of the strict academy education which he believed was designed to suppress artistic genius and originality, particularly his own.  This is thought to be the reason for his rebellion against the despotic institutions of the ancien regime during the Revolution, including the Royal Academy which he helped to abolish in 1793.1  After three consecutive tries, David finally won the prestigious Prix de Rome and could go and study there.  At first he said he was only interested in the works of the Renaissance masters but after he got to Rome, Classical sculpture became his main obsession and he captured the purity and power of contour from Winckelmann's teachings.
Jaques-Louis David, Belisarius Begging for Alms, 1781
(Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille)
Before David started painting Belisarius Begging for Alms in late 1780 as a preliminary entry submission for acceptance into the Academie, he asked the academy what subject he should paint, showing his compliancy. But some scholars argue that this painting actually signifies David's "prerevolutionary radicalism"  and his involvement in the Revolution was the logical conclusion of being a radical,  intellectual, enlightened artist.2

Belisarius was a very successful and loyal general in Byzantine Emperor Justinain's army but he fell from grace, his property was seized and he was blinded. Belisarius was reduced to begging in the streets.  This story was popular during the Enlightenment in mid 18th century France both in art and literature.  In the painting David depicts the moment when a blind old man accompanied by a child, holding out his helmet for a woman to put coins in it is recognized as Belisarius by one of the soldier's who served under him.  The soldier is horrified at seeing his old commander begging in the streets.  The underlying message  being 'this could happen to anyone who is a traitor to the crown" would be understood by the young artists who were in awe of David.

David has depicted the scene taking place in front of very rigid, solid, doric columns and a distant Roman city in the background.  The composition is perpendicular to the viewer's line of vision.  David's strong outlines delineates all the figures from one another and the background.  Although this painting is cited as the first manifesto to Neoclassical painting, there are some lapses in David's work.  The position of the soldier, behind and higher than the woman would necessitate him to be taller. While he has used proper perspective in depicting the tiles on the right side of the painting, the tiles on the left side do not have the illusion of going back in space.  David does not seem to be too concerned with such details and in the future would have his students work on the little details.

It is still a little obscure how David would produce such a subject that could very well be construed as a criticism of the monarchy but the concepts of Enlightenment and the sovereigns perspective on the arts seems to be intersecting during the reigns of Louis XV and XVI.  On the one hand the Enlightened artists, philosophers, and literary figures finding patronage and an intellectually fertile ground in the Salons of aristocratic ladies, the most interesting example being Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour being the protector of the Encyclopedia, and  on the  other some of those figures being arrested for the works discussed at those Salons. The more I learn, the more confounding I find 'the Age of Reason.'

1  Kohle, Hubertus. "The Road from Rome to Paris:  The Birth of a Modern Neoclassicim." Jacques-Louis David:  New Perspectives. Newark [Del.: University of Delaware, 2006. 71. Print
2 Ibid., 74

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