Museums are throwing around all sorts of leftist buzzwords these days. From “decolonization” to “socialism” and “abolition,” liberal institutions have been quick to absorb the revolutionary politics of recent protest movements — and even capitalize on the work of “radical” artists. For the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this has led to a reconsideration of Alice Neel’s communist sympathies and a world-historical Surrealism exhibition rooted in decolonial pedagogy. Within this context, the Met is hosting a special exhibition, curated by Perrin Stein, on the drawings and sketches of French Revolution-era painter Jacques-Louis David, bestowing on him the title of Radical Draftsman.
For David, an active participant in the French Revolution, ancient history was a means through which he could critique the ancien régime, documenting the founding of the French Republic and propagandizing the First French Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. His drawings and sketches, never commodified within his lifetime, reveal his meticulous process in transferring graphic forms of Roman and Greek art into masterpieces of the French school. As such, the Met’s presentation of David’s lesser-known studies is itself an inquiry into the private tribulations of an artist who struggled to balance personal success with a desire for true égalité.
Art historian Phillip Bordes devotes a great deal of attention to David’s labor and reputation as a “hot-headed” but persevering virtuoso. A sketch titled “Reclining Male Nude” (1775-77) and the recently acquired Roman albums show two sides of his burgeoning style as a young pensionnaire, and he would continue sketching the nude human figure to gauge bodily proportions. Several drafts of well-known works appear across entire gallery walls, from graphic designs and gray-washed grids to detailed miniature oil sketches.
As a rising star at the Salon, David was drawn to scenes of familial and state violence as political allegory; however, the acts themselves were less worthy of spectacle than moments before and after — a technique he developed largely through drafting. In “The Oath of the Horatii” (1784), he portrays the prelude to a bloody conflict between siblings, showing three Horatii brothers swearing fealty to their father. David had originally planned to show Publius murdering his sister, Camilla, as depicted in his sketches, but omitting the violence allowed him to tease out subtle contradictions of fraternité under the monarchy.
As tensions escalated in Paris during the late 1780s, similar histories became the subject of plays and performances touting free speech — for instance, the execution of Socrates. David produced the most famous visual portrayal, which is in the Met’s collection, and the final painting appears alongside sketches of his disciples. As with “The Oath of the Horatii,” he chose the moment preceding tragedy, as Socrates reached for the cup of hemlock while still speaking. For the French masses, the scene spoke to the immortality of a soul that could not be corrupted.
During the Revolution, David was a member of the Jacobin Club and a close associate of Jean-Paul Marat. He participated in the National Convention vote to guillotine King Louis XVI and worked to reform the Académie, eventually overseeing its dissolution and the founding of the Louvre. The artworks from this period truly steal the show, revealing how the artist quickly shifted to documenting history in real time — all while continuing to reimagine classical figuration.
In “The Triumph of the French People” (1794), several drafting techniques manifest across a small picture plane. Lifting the composition of a Roman relief, David adapted a lion hunt into the assassination of a king by two nude warriors and an angel. At right, Marat bares his wounded chest directly at the viewer. The piece appears catercorner to David’s pen and chalk portrait of Marat after his murder, which formed the basis of “The Death of Marat” (1793). An inscription beneath reads, “Unable to corrupt me, they assassinated me.”
Perhaps the most captivating and peculiar piece here is a draft of an incomplete painting titled “The Oath of the Tennis Court” (1791), which shows deputies of the Third Estate drafting the Republican constitution in Versailles as a storm brews around them. David captures the early formation of the National Assembly based on written accounts, with a sea of faces and hands saluting in the direction of Jean Sylvain Bailly at center, not unlike in “The Oath of the Horatii.” Nearby studies of Maximilien Robespierre and Edmond Louis Alexis Dubois-Crancé detail how the artist modeled the revolutionaries after Roman soldiers.
David’s involvement with the Committee for Public Safety during the Reign of Terror led to his imprisonment after a parliamentary revolt overthrew Robespierre, leaving many works unfinished outside of a few medallion portraits of fellow prisoners. A number of these portraits are on display in a gallery devoted to the Revolution’s aftermath, directly beside sketches from “The Intervention of the Sabine Women” (1799), a historical allegory for reconciliation between feuding nations.
David greatly admired Napoleon Bonaparte and opposed the Bourbon Restoration, causing him to accept a role as official court painter for the First French Empire. This position led him to serve Napoleon’s mission of consolidating power through art, which included a return to monarchical imagery. The draft “Napoleon Crowning Himself” shows an early version of “The Coronation of Napoleon” (1805-7) alongside individual studies of Empress Josephine and clergy members. At Napoleon’s request, David shifted the composition to show him crowning Josephine. Likewise, an oil sketch of “The Distribution of the Eagle Standards” (1805-10) reveals compositional similarities to both “The Oath of the Horatii” and “The Oath of the Tennis Court,” this time trading revolutionary subversion for military allegiance.
David’s close relationship with Napoleon and exile in Brussels after the Restoration pose some interesting questions for an American audience in the imperial core today, particularly how an artist interested in human rights could justify supporting a colonial empire. Yet Radical Draftsman fails to meet the occasion, focusing exclusively on his stylistic cohesion through multiple periods of profound social change. These elements hardly seem as incendiary as the times; consequently, the exhibition makes David appear somewhat reactionary in his late-career pursuit of Napoleonic-era glory.
Historian Bordes posits that David “let his emotions take over” during the Reign of Terror, yet Napoleon and the ancien régime hardly receive the same curatorial scrutiny (a certain Mark Twain quote comes to mind). While succeeding in working against the singular genius narrative — particularly through the inclusion of David’s many loyal students, such as Jean Germain Drouais and Anne-Louis Girodet — the exhibition nonetheless reveals David to be a careerist through it all. Rather than accentuating his radicalism, it makes David a compelling case study in opportunism and survival.
David’s widespread popularity across class lines spoke to his accomplishments as a propagandist, in bringing the “high arts” closer to the public and then commercializing the Empire; however, the academic focus on technique here belies any attempt to depart from conservative narratives around the French Revolution. More political nuance would benefit younger viewers, particularly in relation to the fascist embrace of Neoclassicism as a regressive bludgeon against Modernism.
This is all to say that museums need to put up or shut up if they wish to disseminate truly radical ideas about art history. Otherwise, we are merely re-legitimating the status quo.
Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 15. The exhibition was curated by Perrin Stein, Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Editor’s Note, 3/14/2022, 3:42 pm EST: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed quotes to the exhibition’s curator, Perrin Stein. The quotes are from art historian Phillip Bordes.