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28 April 2021

A prisoner’s perspective

Jacques-Louis David painted his only landscape as the guillotine loomed over him.

By Michael Prodger

Jacques-Louis David’s entire raison d’être was to be not just France’s pre-eminent figure painter but above all its history painter. “To be a real artist”, he believed, meant he had “to proceed like the Ancients”, and it was the example of the classical past – in both form and morality – that was his purpose. And he succeeded, becoming the greatest of all neoclassical artists and a teacher of huge influence, so that towards the end of his life he could write without exaggeration that, “I painted pictures that the whole of Europe came to study.”

David (1748-1825) lived through the last days of the ancien régime, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic adventure and into the Bourbon Restoration. He was an artist preternaturally alive to the atmosphere of his exceptionally febrile times and adapted his paintings to them. If proceeding like the ancients meant an art distinguished by outline, clarity of form, lucidity of colour and with the human figure at its centre, he brought these old verities to the most modern as well as the most ancient of subjects.

[See also: The cameraless images of Anna Atkins]

He was, however, no mere chronicler but a participant. In the late 1780s he painted three canvases that had a real influence on the form of the early revolution. The Oath of the Horatii (1786), The Death of Socrates (1787), and The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789) were moral paintings, each taking an example from antiquity, with a clear message for those in whom the need for change in France was becoming ever more urgent: public duty was everything; self-sacrifice and love for one’s country trumps both love for one’s family and love for one’s own life.

The paintings have a mathematical rigidity, dramatic lighting and architecture that is as unadorned as their moral. For the philosophe Denis Diderot, they showed the “severity, rigour, and discipline of Sparta”. The pictures preached the exemplum virtutis – virtuous example – and were republican, politically engaged and implicitly (though, carefully, not overtly) critical of the existing regime. Their real meaning might have been unconscious even to David himself, and they certainly did not represent a fully realised programme of intent, but what was sensed at the time and became ever clearer after the event was that the paintings showed soon-to-be revolutionaries the standard against which they should measure their brave new world.

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Their import was quickly recognised. When David exhibited The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons in 1789, showing Lucius Junius Brutus grieving for the sons he had condemned to death for trying to overthrow the republic and restore the monarchy, the work was banned by the government. It only regained its place on the Salon walls, where it was guarded by art students, after a public outcry.

When the revolution did break fully, David became its official artist. He painted the defining event of its unfolding, the Tennis Court Oath of June 1789, where the members of the third estate vowed, in the face of the clergy and aristocracy, to establish a national constitution; he painted its heroic victim-martyrs – the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat, the regicide Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, and François Joseph Bara, a boy drummer killed by royalists; he organised Robespierre’s revolutionary fêtes celebrating the triumph of the people and the Cult of the Supreme Being, which gave a substitute spectacle for the royal and religious pomp the citizens had jettisoned.

[See also: The blossom-filled landscapes of Charles Conder]

David’s patriotic work was that of an insider: he joined the Jacobin faction, was a close friend of the “sea-green incorruptible” Robespierre, became a deputy in the National Convention and a member of the Committee of General Security, where he gained the nickname of the “ferocious terrorist”. He was a signatory to the death warrant of Louis XVI and drew a haunting sketch of Marie Antoinette as she passed his window on an open cart on her way to the guillotine. During the revolution’s 1793-94 “reign of terror”, David was complicit.

Of course the revolution devoured its own children and the fall of Robespierre tugged David down too. “My friend, if you drink hemlock, I will drink hemlock with you,” he pledged the doomed Robespierre, echoing the death of Socrates in his painting, but prison not poison awaited. Denounced in the convention as “this usurper, this tyrant of the arts, as cowardly as he is blackguardly”, he was arrested in August 1794 and avoided the guillotine – the “national razor” – by a whisker (he was ill and the convention could not convict him unless he was present in person). Instead, he was imprisoned first in the Hôtel des Fermes in Paris and, despite petitions for his release by his students, was then transferred to further incarceration at the requisitioned Luxembourg Palace.

There, he continued to protest his innocence (“No one can ever reproach me with a single reprehensible deed because my intentions were always pure”, “No one could call me a bloodthirsty painter”) and bemoan his fallen state (“My health is suffering, my money is dwindling, my pupils are without a guide…”) while his enemies at the academy of painting, over which he had ruled heavy-handedly, drew up a list of 17 indictments against him. It was in these circumstances that he painted the only landscape of his entire career.


His View from the Luxembourg of 1794 is a prisoner’s-eye image showing what he saw from the window of the room in which he was jailed. There is a wooden palisade erected around the building as an exercise yard for the prisoners, and beyond it the empty lime-tree walks of the gardens, a section of the park given over to cultivating crops to supplement Paris’s food supply, and a hint of the streets beyond the boundary railings.

David’s sketchbooks from his long stay in Italy in the late 1770s contain various landscape drawings and pen-and-wash pictures but this work, made in extremis, is the only oil painting in the genre. In fact, he made two while a prisoner but one was lost, so this modest, small and unusual picture is a unique document of his mood.

That mood can be judged by the low tones (the only touch of pure colour comes from a handful of red poppies in the middle- ground), the emptiness of the scene (he could have painted the gardens full of promenaders) and the rigid geometry (apart from the diagonal fence in the lower left, it is all verticals and horizontals). His prison room may not have had bars but this pictorial grid shows their virtual presence; the distant horizon – that promise of escape – occupies just a tiny portion; the sunlight lacks brilliance and the leaves lack vibrancy. The scene has a desiccated air; a season is turning. It may be a real view but perhaps it is not fanciful to read this picture as a transcription of his state of mind.

[See also: The ruin-strewn landscapes of Hubert Robert]

There have been a few scholarly voices doubting David’s authorship but the painting’s provenance and its scattering of figures make that theory less than persuasive. The woman with a water jar on her head who walks by to the left and the group of four figures with sticks scratching in the exercise ground dirt – they could be gleaners but equally Greek philosophers expounding their theories in the dust – are of the sort that fill his Italian sketchbooks, taken from antique sarcophagi and Renaissance paintings: Raphael is a point of reference for both. David in the Luxembourg was a man without models, so he painted those figures he had studied so well during his younger years; his world had shrunk, he suffered “worries as to the future” and felt, as he wrote to a friend, “in total abandonment”, but his pictorial muscle memory still twitched. In his little landscape he combined, and contrasted, his past and his present.

David was eventually released from prison. He didn’t return to his post at the convention but withdrew from the public eye. He re-emerged under Napoleon, the regicide had turned emperor-worshipper (“Bonaparte is my hero” he exclaimed to his students after meeting the great man), but took himself into prudent exile in Belgium with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. There he painted portraits and pure classical scenes with a lighter palette and lighter still morality. He died in Brussels in 1825 aged 77 after being knocked down by a passing coach while returning from the theatre. The Bourbons refused to let him be buried in Paris. In the Luxembourg he had wanted to escape captivity, in death he was a captive outside his native land.

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This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas