Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 11, 2023
Perrin Stein, ed. Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale Universtiy Press, 2022. 308 pp.; 242 ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781588397461)
Jacques Louis David, Portrait of Jeanbon Saint-André, 1795, The Art Institute of Chicago

Few artists have been as profoundly involved in their political milieu as Jacques Louis David. In this regard, the subtitle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of the artist’s drawings—“Radical Draftsman”—makes perfect sense. Indeed, its signature image, The Oath of the Tennis Court, shows David at the zenith of his artistic service to the nascent republic: members of the Third Estate unite in the highly finished study, which he displayed at the Salon of 1791 to inspire citizens to fund an ambitious painting, one he ultimately never completed. Less triumphant proof of the artist’s embroilment in the French Revolution is a group of hauntingly vivid portrait medallions he limned of fellow imprisoned Jacobins in 1795: a Latin inscription circumscribing the likeness of politician Jeanbon Saint-André claims “David made it in chains.” And yet the argument this exhibition makes for David’s “radicalism” as a draftsman is less about such symptomatic episodes of subject matter and more about drawing and its fundamental service to his calling as a painter. If one makes an etymological hop to a subsidiary definition of “radical,” as curator Perrin Stein asks the reader to do in her forward to the exhibition catalog, one realizes that the drawings on view are characterized, by and large, by their positions “at the root of” his ambitious paintings.

In their style and affect, these drawings make no claim to radicality vis-à-vis contemporary graphic practices. In fact, the majority of drawings selected evoke the artist’s resistance to the medium’s emergence as an autonomous mode of expression over the preceding century. To this end, the artist eschewed collaborations with printmakers—with the possible exception of the unnervingly intimate Head of the Dead Jean Paul Marat (1793)—and made no sustained effort to market his drawings, unlike many of his contemporaries. Both The Oath of the Tennis Court and the prison portraits stand apart in his oeuvre in their descriptive resolution: the first in its meticulously staged scene of peak fraternal fervor; the second in the degree of “subjective surplus” exhibited by the disgraced sitters, to use Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s apt formulation (Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror, Yale University, 1999, 91).

Writing about David’s drawings abounds with apologies for its parsimonious handling. Even Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat confessed in the introduction to their catalog raisonné, that colleagues expressed surprise at their choice to dedicate such great attention to the “modest” drawings of a man best known for his great paintings (Leonardo Art, 2002, 11). In Philippe Bordes’s essay for the catalog accompanying the present exhibition, he writes, “one cannot help but feel that his [David’s] aspirations as a painter bridled his graphic practice” (54).

If these drawings permit direct access to the artist’s manière—as the eighteenth-century connoisseur Dezallier d’Argenville claimed any drawing would—then we encounter a deeply methodical, calculating persona. For David, drawing was an intellectual tool by which he recorded antiquity, studied the human form, and plotted his paintings. The latter function is most spectacularly on display in drawings related to the Met’s own Death of Socrates (1787), relocated to the exhibition galleries. The painting’s stable configuration, marmoreal contours, and assertive gestures have been further solidified through our very familiarity with this iconic image. The preparatory drawings—rife with pasted additions, trembling pentimenti, tracings, and other residues of indecision—unlock the protracted process of revision David navigated to arrive at his final composition.

The exhibition structures its overview of his graphic oeuvre chronologically through an impressive lineup of loans from two dozen international institutions and private collections. Within this arc, drawings are grouped by either their affiliation with a specific painting, their typology, or their connection to pivotal episodes in David’s life. In these biographical constellations, the drawings reveal their unique social currency, as either means to ascend academic ranks or as surrogates for interpersonal connection. When David was kept from loved ones or from his studio, drawing became all that he had and thus the recipient of exceptional attention.

The exhibition begins with examples from the artist’s formative years in Paris and Rome, in “Early Training, 1764–1780.” Accompanying the typical selection of académies and sketches of Roman fragments are two albums composed of folios on which the artist affixed drawings extracted from his Italian sketchbooks, which he dismembered and organized by subject—posthumously dismantled and then reassembled by his heirs—for reference in his workshop.

Unlike these studious archives, The Combat of Diomedes (1776) is all sinuous line and flashy white highlights, a gigantic swath of joined sheets that stampedes off the wall with the thunder of a baroque battle painting. David would soon abandon this approach to multifigure scenes and this relationship to drawing. We have the impression of finally meeting the David we think we know with Belisarius Begging for Alms (1779). Here—in a subdued amalgam of ink, wash, and white heightening—neoclassical scenography, antique subject, and sober theatricality coalesce.

When David returned to Paris, he did so with a steely resolve marshalling his pen. The section titled “Building a Reputation, 1780-89” is built around drawings made in preparation for some of David’s most ambitious history paintings, including The Oath of the Horatii, Andromache Mourning the Death of Hector, and The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons. These groupings may feel impenetrable to the uninitiated, as their repetitive nature is an expert’s review of minute reworkings. Scattered throughout these compositional explorations are the artist’s somewhat inert premier pensées and studies of figures and drapery shimmering with white chalk that evince sustained attention to volume and surface. It is as if we are looking at the skeletons and the skins of David’s paintings and are invited to imagine their reconstitution on canvas.

In the next section, “Navigating the Revolution, 1789-99,” highlights range from the obscure to the illustrious. In the first category, the recently resurfaced Allegory of the Revolution at Nantes presents a narrative confusion, with ghostly graphite figures in the sky testifying to David’s ambivalence toward allegory. Other drawings, from his designs for Republican costumes, to his prison portraits and heroic rendering of the The Oath of the Tennis Court, mark the artist’s intense involvement with the violence, tragedy, and triumph of political upheaval. David’s enduring attachment to antiquity, which served as a foil to understand the present, is visible in studies for The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). He first considered the subject while in prison in Luxembourg, spending years rotating and shuffling the figures about until arriving at his striking final image, which he hoped would solicit feelings of identification and reconciliation among the French public.

An astute reader of political tides, David threw himself into the service of Napoleon Bonaparte by 1800. In “The Napoleonic Era (1799-1816),” we witness David wielding his facility for depicting moments of historic importance. This section highlights complex scenes he developed to document a range of ceremonies, from The Coronation (1804–5) to the densely animated Distribution of the Eagles (1809–10). Crowning this group is a pair of advanced studies for Leonidas at Thermopylae (1812–14), a Hellenistic subject honoring brotherhood and patriotism. The sheet from the Met is taut with line and contour, while that from the Louvre is fleshed out with wash and tone, a difference in gesture that materializes the artist’s plodding process and the myriad meanings the subject surely accrued for the artist over the dozen years it took to complete.

In the exhibition’s conclusion, “Reinvention in Exile (1816-1825),” a sampling of works attests to the arrival of drawing as a practice unto itself. These sheets fall into two categories: half-length portraits and “caprices.” Art historians have variously attributed the execution of such fragmented figures to trauma after the terror, the influence of lithography, or the reduced format of available paper supports. The pictures’ immediacy and sense of disjunction may also be a product of David being unmoored and finally free from programmatic obligations. The unusual portrait of his son and daughter-in-law produced from his sickbed, is the attentive product of forced immobility. It is in images David made while in veritable “chains”—charged with black chalk and freighted with psychological acuity—that one finds a different kind of visual satisfaction.

If drawings are at the root of David’s practice, then what do we find when we dig? His origins suggest drawing was a procedure tainted by necessity. He taught drawing to the Guéret sisters in exchange for a studio. He drew to please his professors, to master the human body, and to document models from the past. Drawings then retained their fundamental, utilitarian role in the development of his paintings. One leaves the exhibition wondering if David were not a radical draftsman, but rather a radical painter compelled to draw. 

Sarah Grandin
Lunde Fellow, The Clark Art Institute