Monday, January 7, 2013

Empire to Exile: A Fresh Look at the Art of Jacques-Louis David

Self-Portrait, 1794, by Jacques-Louis David. Départment des Peintures, Don Eugène Isabey, 1852, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard, 1800 - 1801, by Jacques-Louis David, Musée National des Châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Preau, Rueil-Malmaison, France. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, New York. Photo by Daniel Arnaudet.


The French Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror decimated the art world of the Academy, a world of niceties and frills created in the shadow of a fashionable court. Jacques-Louis David emerged as the most celebrated painter of his era and the leader of a neoclassical movement that influenced Western art for generations. The focus of Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile, a major exhibition opening at the Clark Art Institute on June 5, is post-Revolutionary and traces the evolution of David’s work from 1794 to his death in exile in 1825.
According to director Michael Conforti, the Clark Art Institute is committed to organizing groundbreaking exhibitions that add important new dimensions to our understanding of an artist like David who we think we know well. “Empire to Exile is the perfect expression of the Clark’s dual mission to advance scholarship while building popular interest in the arts, and this show is certain to delight both scholars and the public.”In the Service of Napoleon
The exhibition features 24 paintings and 23 drawings; among them some of David’s finest work, including many pieces that have never before been shown in this country. Because of the enormous size of some of the canvases, the show is expansive and begins in the courtyard galleries. Set against deep Imperial blue walls is the iconic Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard, 1800-1801. Here Napoleon Bonaparte is fixed in posterity’s mind as Emperor astride a rearing steed, buffeted by wind, and set against stormy skies. He is the very image of Imperial control, power, and assertiveness. Nobody cares today that Napoleon actually crossed the Alps two days after his troops, and did so riding a mule. David was never a simple artist. He was always diverting things. Even though depicting a contemporary event, he mythologized the crossing of the Alps. He puts his Emperor on a fiery steed, charging up the mountain, thus helping to create an immortal image of Napoleon.
The painting immediately plunges viewers into one of David’s major points of view. He depicted Napoleon in the context of contemporary events. He was focused on painting the history of his times, his fellow citizens, and the Imperial court. He was fixing the glory of Empire in the minds of all who viewed his work. He is what the French refer to as an artiste engagé, an artist committed to recording the events of his time. In this part of the exhibition the visitor can find the well-known portrait of the Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Painted in 1812, this image of Napoleon is emblematic, featuring the classic hand in the waistcoat pose that we know so well.

Portraits of Consulate and Empire
The exhibition is organized much along the lines of the handsome show catalogue by Philippe Bordes. Each section offers a thematic as well as a chronological approach. As First Painter, David worked on commissioned paintings of Napoleon and distinguished individuals in the Emperor’s court. One of his major contributions is that he helped the government to consolidate power and establish a visual language for Napoleon’s Empire. David’s official portraits served as a model for generations of future artists, and their distinct style confirmed his status as a brilliant court painter. Each was appreciated for its truth to nature, helping to found his reputation during his lifetime.
Likenesses range from the tense and ascetic Portrait of Pope Pius VII of 1805 to a very alert and thoughtful Portrait of Cooper Penrose of 1802. Penrose was an Irish Quaker who lived in Cork and made his fortune in the lumber trade. There is also the 1810 painting of Alexandrine Therese Nardot, Comtesse Daru with her faint smile and magnificent Parure of emeralds, diamonds, and pearls. This painting has never before been publicly exhibited. In his portraits, David seems less interested in depicting the external trappings of his sitters’ status in life, but according to Bordes, valorizes moral qualities and domestic virtues.

Antiquity Revisited
Jacques-Louis David was also keen to replicate the stuff of ancient life, as he understood it. He saw himself as an artist in the grand tradition depicting stories from classical literature. His late classical works are distinguished by their crisp draftsmanship and brightly lit, highly keyed color schemes, a style appropriate to their often-sensual subjects. These are mythological dramas, old traditions executed in a fresh and energizing way. His figures are lifelike, very much in the manner of portraits. It is almost unnerving to recognize the faces of his models in such boldly intimate settings.
Major highlights of this genre are two of David’s most provocative subjects – Cupid and Psyche, 1817 from the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Sappho and Phaon, 1809 from the State Hermitage Museum. His new approach to antiquity in historical compositions integrates the changing attitudes of the times into these traditional narratives.

Experiments in Expression

One gallery is devoted to a selection of 20 or so drawings from the period when David worked in exile in Brussels after the fall of Napoleon’s empire. The character of the late graphic work is highly personal in contrast to the earlier drawings, which were mostly studies for his paintings. These are finished works that reveal an artist taking up drawing for its own sake. The subjects in these stunning works remain elusive and difficult to identify. They show a more private artist freed from official pressures, an artist able to portray different subjects and forms of graphic expression.
“David’s drawings, whether they are studies for large paintings or highly finished ‘presentation’ drawings made as an end in themselves, reveal a great deal about the artist’s working methods. This exhibition will make the case that these works are an important part of the artist’s oeuvre and should be given greater attention than they have received up to now,” commented Richard Rand.

Portraits in Exile
Portraits painted from 1816 to the time of David’s death in 1825 were all executed in Brussels. These works depict fellow exiles and reflect experimental and personal qualities of his later work. Here, the Flemish School often influenced his innovations in portraiture.
The final gallery is devoted to three huge canvases, his most ambitious projects. These could never leave Paris because the sheer size of the paintings makes it impossible for them to travel. These are the Coronation of Napoleon, the Distribution of the Eagle Standards, and Leonidas at Thermopylae. The Clark has assembled a series of drawings and oil sketches used in their preparation, along with David’s sketchbook. The exhibit reveals much about the process of how he created them. One wall is devoted to each of these pictures, including a reproduction of the whole canvas along with details in actual scale. The visitor really gets a feeling of the enormous size of these paintings.
This final gallery is fun, engaging, and exciting. It brings to mind a whole host of issues, particularly the power of proselytizing on behalf of the Emperor. The sheer size of these canvases does half the work. This room makes it easier to get inside his head and view his work processes.
Throughout the show, the wall colors reinforce the late neoclassic period emphasizing reds, slate grays, and rich blues highlighted by dramatic lighting. Senior curator, Richard Rand tells us, “From the very first gallery, visitors will immediately understand David’s work in an emblematic way. His paintings are startling, exciting, and grand all at once.”
The exhibition is accompanied by an important lavishly illustrated publication by Philippe Bordes (published by Yale University Press in association with the Clark).

Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile, June 5 - September 5, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267, (413) 458-2303,

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