Art and Revolution

Norman Hampson

  • Jacques-Louis David by Anita Brookner
    Chatto, 223 pp, £25.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2530 6

In what her publishers claim to be the first monograph in English on David, Dr Brookner explains that she sees her book as a ‘preparation’ for more specialised studies at present under way in France and America. It is intended ‘for the general reader whose eye has been arrested by David’s images and whose mind has been haunted or irritated by their supernal energy and conviction’. This would seem to focus the centre of interest of the book on David’s ‘revolutionary’ period, from the ‘Oath of the Horatii’, completed in 1785, to the ‘Intervention of the Sabine Women’ and the portrait head of Bonaparte in 1798. Whatever the merits of the portraits that David painted throughout most of his career, it is not by these that the non-specialist is likely to remember him, and fine though some of them are, they are scarcely noteworthy for their ‘supernal’ energy. ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’, executed between 1800 and 1814, should perhaps be added to the canon, but with this exception, the best-known works of David fall within the revolutionary period.

Even the most ‘general’ reader is entitled to expect rather more careful brushwork in the background than he gets from Dr Brookner. Her presentation of the historical context is frankly slapdash: when she lists the members of the Committee of Public Safety she gets one of them wrong; Necker’s compte rendu was not published in 1789; it is wildly inaccurate to describe the pre-Revolutionary Church as ‘the old religion of a middle-class élite’. Mistakes of this sort are perhaps not very important in themselves, but they undermine confidence. More serious, in view of her argument that David was much influenced by Rousseau, is a certain vagueness about what Jean-Jacques actually said, and how it influenced people. It was Montesquieu, not Rousseau, who was the mentor of the parlements; the Revolutionary cult of the Supreme Being was inspired by Du Contrat Social (not Le Control Social) and not by the Nouvelle Héloïse; when Rousseau, in his famous prize essay, denounced the corrupting influence of les arts, he was thinking of technology rather than of the beaux-arts. Dr Brookner’s approach can be very illuminating, but it is not much concerned with precise attention to detail.

Her book does have the cardinal merit, however, of focusing attention on what the general reader is likely to regard as the central issue: the relationship between the artist and society in time of revolution. At first sight, it all seems clear enough. The ‘Oath of the Horatii’ was a revolutionary picture in the technical sense that it marked a new departure in David’s style and was very different from the kind of pictures that other people were painting. Its Roman subject, its Spartan simplicity, and the emphasis on the triumph of vertu over the domestic affections, all seemed to anticipate the attitudes of 1793. Lord Clark has described it as ‘the supreme picture of revolutionary action, not only in its subject, but in its treatment’. David himself was elected to the Convention in 1792 and voted for the death of the king. He took a leading part in the destruction of the Academy and was put on the Committee of General Security, the police committee which, even more than the Committee of Public Safety, was primarily responsible for the administration of the Terror. When the Girondins sent Marat before the revolutionary tribunal, David shouted: ‘Je demande que vous m’assassiniez ... Je suis aussi un homme vertueux.’ When Robespierre in turn was fighting for his life, David assured him: ‘Mon ami, si tu bois la cigüe, je la boirai avec toi.’ He organised some of the great Revolutionary fêtes, and when Robespierre fell, he was arrested. His pictures of the Revolutionary ‘martyrs’, Marat and Lepeletier, hung in the Convention.

And yet ... If it were all so simple, David would be the exception who proved the rule. On the whole, the Revolution and the arts did not mix. Musically, its legacy was restricted mainly to military marches: ‘Cadet Roussel’, the ‘Chant du Départ’, the ‘Sambre-et-Meuse’, and the greatest of them all, the ‘Marseillaise’. Even ‘patriotic’ operas by Grétry and others were composed along tinkling traditional lines. The writers who mattered, Chateaubriand and Mme de Staël, belonged to the opposition – opposition to Napoleon, admittedly, but neither of them had any use for the Terror. Revolutionary politicians took a lively interest in the theatre, but it was expressed mainly by banning productions of which they disapproved. The early years of the Revolution saw one or two competent plays, such as Chénier’s Charles IX, but they were written along traditional lines. Laya’s excellent Ami des Lois – equally conventional in style – was suppressed by the Commune after only four performances, on political grounds. The theatre of the Terror was represented by such primitive rubbish as Sylvain Maréchal’s Dernier Jugement des Rois. If, in David’s case, the revolutionary crisis was directly responsible for the production of his most memorable work, this would seem to call for some explanation.

This takes us back to the ‘Horatii’. For the previous ten years, ever since his stay in Rome, from 1775 to 1780, David’s style had been in continuous evolution. It retained its theatricality – a curious feeling that his subjects were performing for the benefit of an audience – but the swirling Baroque draperies and the crowded stage of his early years were gradually giving way to simplicity, sobriety and gravity. A discarded sketch for the ‘Oath of the Horatii’ suggests, as Dr Brookner points out, that Poussin’s influence may have counted for more than that of Rousseau. Since she insists that David was no great reader, it is perhaps unwise to probe too deeply into what he could have learned from Diderot or Rousseau. Diderot’s ‘Peindre comme on parlait à Sparte’ may seem peculiarly apposite to his work, but Sparta was in the air. Self-immolation, the theatrical gesture and its bombastic explanation were the stock-in-trade of every hack writer. Since David’s pictures could not speak and he himself did not get a forum for his sermonising until he was elected to the Convention, his public was spared the verbosity and got only the simplicity. The implication here is that David was a receptive man whose own development kept pace with the mood of society, whatever that mood happened to be. In Dr Brookner’s words, ‘David did not influence the Revolution; the Revolution influenced David.’

If that were the case, in 1785 one would expect to find him preaching a somewhat puritanical doctrine of moral regeneration, rather than revolt or republicanism. The devotees of Rousseau still assumed that the reform that mattered was the moral reformation of the individual, under the benevolent leadership of the king whom the Constituent Assembly, in 1789, declared to be the restaurateur de la liberté française. Even David’s future ami, Robespierre, saw Louis XVI in this light. This is precisely the attitude of the ‘Horatii’. If David had been looking for a republican theme, he could have found plenty in Livy. This was not one of them. The subject of the picture belonged rather to the world of Corneille: the triumph of civic duty over family affection. The Horatii were pledging themselves to nothing more revolutionary than to act as the champions of Rome in the Latin equivalent of a Border feud. The oath itself seems to have been David’s own invention. All this is not to deny the extraordinary power of the painting, but to suggest that our vague feeling that the three young men were doing something that threatened the ancien régime is a matter of being wise after the event. No doubt they do belong to the imaginary world of Rousseau rather than to the army of the Maréchal de Saxe, but this world need not have become that of the law of suspects and the guillotine, and no one, in 1785, suspected that it would. If one wanted, one could see the painting as a recruiting poster, or even as a commentary on the folly of war. Dr Brookner investigates these issues persuasively.

Much the same conclusions can be drawn from the ‘Death of Socrates’ (1787) and ‘Brutus receiving the bodies of his sons’ (1789). Once again, the message is Stoic rather than revolutionary or republican. If one were to be pedantic, the fact that the aristocrate Socrates was executed by the Athenian republic made the subject most unsuitable for radical propaganda. Brutus was rather more appropriate: he had, after all, condemned his sons to death for taking part in a royalist plot. But David’s painting puts the emphasis on his grief, rather than on the triumph of his vertu, as in the case of the Horatii. Dr Brookner is quite right to claim that ‘both pictures reverberate with a tension that threatens to disrupt the tight schema of the compositions.’ The years when they were painted, however, were not so much tense and tragic as years of dawning hope, when almost everyone believed that the Brave New World that was almost in sight would be one of harmony and peace. Unless one was to assume that David was a prophet – a voice crying in what only he recognised as a wilderness – these were not political pictures.

By 1792, things were very different. David had committed himself to the Revolution; he was a legislator and even a member of the government. As the organiser of great national fêtes, he revelled in the exploitation of those tortuous allegories that posterity is perhaps not alone in finding something of a bore: Robespierre setting a torch to the statue of Atheism, whose combustion revealed a slightly sooty Wisdom underneath. David’s sketch for ‘The Triumph of the French People’, with its triumphal car and its naked citizenry putting to flight some fully-clothed tyrants, is on a par with the real pageants, and with David’s speeches in the Convention. His cruel sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to execution (not reproduced here) is a vicious political cartoon. It is not by these, though, that he is remembered, but by his ‘Marat’, to which we might have added his painting of the murdered Lepeletier, if the subject’s royalist daughter had not bought it and had it destroyed. There is no bombast here, no proliferation of republican symbols – in fact, there are no republican symbols at all. These pictures were propaganda only in the sense in which religious art is propaganda, because the viewer’s knowledge of the subject supplies a particular context to a universal statement about life and death. Art and Revolution did not mix, but in David, for an astonishing moment, they co-existed.

After his release from prison towards the end of 1794 it was all rather different. Like many of his contemporaries, he felt a genuine enthusiasm for General Bonaparte: his unfinished portrait of him – a mere sketch – is a masterpiece. The First Consul already aroused rather different emotions, and the Emperor imposed his own standards on his court painters: what one might not unfairly describe as imperialist realism. David, as always, responded to the winds of change, but his genius refused to follow. ‘Napoleon crossing the Saint-Bernard’ contrived to be both lifeless and theatrical at the same time, and his ‘Sacre de Joséphine’, despite its technical brilliance, is as devoid of meaning as the event it portrays. After Napoleon’s fall, David had not much more to say. In exile in Brussels, he produced some acute portraits – and some vapid pieces of mythological tomfoolery.

Anita Brookner’s study, in other words, raises more questions than it answers, which was perhaps the intention of the book and is certainly one of its great merits. The ‘general’ reader learns a good deal about David’s art and a certain amount, less reliably, about the artistic, intellectual and political climate in which he lived and to which he responded. The relationship between the two remains something of a mystery. This is as it should be, and to have shown that it was a mystery, and not something obvious or self-explanatory, is an achievement that puts us all in her debt.