Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is not surprising that the archetypical model of the committed radical artists would have its source in the world historical event that in many ways inaugurated the modern era’s prevailing ideas about radicalism and the political responsibilities of artists.

Even today we live in a political world influenced by the French Revolution. The use of the terms right and left is only the most obvious sign of the continued presence of that greatest of all revolutions, one whose effects have long outlasted the ephemeral Bolshevik Revolution. Almost all of the cliches applied to revolutions, how they devour their young, how they start by opposing injustice and then enact new ones, how they devolve into dictatorships, come from the image we have of France from July 14, 1789 until Napoleon’s departure for St. Helena after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

The glorification of revolutionary moments, the virtual deification of its leaders, the implication of artists in a revolution’s daily affairs all flow from France. More specifically, we can say that they have their model in the greatest artist of the period, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the subject of a magnificent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques-Louis David Radical Draftsman. (Those unable to visit the exhibition, and even those who can, which is on display until May 15, would do well to acquire the catalog, which is beautifully illustrated and clearly elucidates the works in the show, and many that aren’t.)

The show traces David’s artistic career through its main periods: his pre-Revolutionary classicism; his deep involvement in the Revolution at the side of the Jacobins; his time in prison and activities after the fall of Robespierre; his work as the virtual court painter of Napoleon I; and finally, his exile in Brussels after the collapse of Bonapartist power.

Radical Draftsman is an entirely apposite title for the show, even if David’s draftsmanship was in fact rigorously traditional in its execution. The sketches on display show his mastery of neo-classical technique: developing figures on grids; drawing and re-drawing sketches to obtain the right gesture, the right form, the right placement; the nude figures that were the first step before adding clothing so that the attire would fit and sit correctly on the subject. Also on show are drawings, some only recently attributed to David, like the pen portraits of Jacobins imprisoned along with him after the fall of Robespierre, as well as of his friend Jean-Paul Marat as he appeared after his assassination. The techniques of classical figurative painting and the process of creation are the heart of this show, and add immensely to our appreciation, not only of the work of David, but of the artists of his time and kind.

David’s career was already flourishing before the Revolution, for he had been elected member of the Académie Royale. He was, then, not an outsider to the world that he was about to help die.

He received royal commissions, but we can find his larval radicalism in a painting that was commissioned by the crown: The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Body of His Sons.

There is no denying the boldness of the subject David chose for this work. It shows in gruesome detail the scene at the home of Brutus, when he was ordered to witness the execution of his sons for plotting against the Roman Republic in order to restore a monarchy. Brutus’s loyalty to the Republic over his family made him the perfect embodiment of republican virtue—and one can only wonder what the French court made of the image he created.


The Revolution, unleashed on July 14, 1789, found David ready not just to depict the future and the struggles involved in giving it birth, but as heavily involved in the actual making of the revolution as any artist had ever been involved in any struggle.

As the revolution progressed, David became in effect its minister of culture and artistic directory. He created a monumental canvas based his raucous 1790 drawing of The Tennis Court Oath, the various stages of which are part of the Met show. This work, depicting the gathering when the members of the Third Estate swore to remain in session until they’d written a constitution, presents the assembled men in all their fiery glory, some literally rending their garments.

Along with allegorical drawings of the freed city of Nantes and the victory of the French people over tyranny, in 1794 David proposed a series of costumes designed for representatives of the people, from judges to members of the National Assembly to judges. Everything in France had to be made new, from the form of government to the calendar, and David’s designs for republican costumes revealed much about the meeting of art and politics during the Revolutionary period. The representatives of the new world that was being built would be dressed in costumes that borrowed from the past, with nods to antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, all in the service of revolution, the Revolution, and a future in which all was to be remade anew.

David’s most active period in the Revolution came during its most radical and violent phase. Elected to the National Convention as a Jacobin in 1793, he also became a member of the Committee of General Security, which helped the Committee on Public Safety oversee the Jacobin terror in 1793-1794. He helped choreograph such public fêtes as the elaborate Festival of Unity and Indivisibility held on August 10, 1793, the first anniversary of the insurrection that had overthrown the monarchy. One of his most famous paintings, Marat’s Final Breath, was created to be hung in the National Convention, with the aim of inspiring its members to follow Marat’s uncompromising example of revolutionary probity.

All of this came to an end with the fall of Robespierre in July 1794. Though David, unlike most of the Jacobin leadership, escaped the guillotine, he was imprisoned. While behind bars, he produced a striking series of ink portraits of fellow Jacobin prisoners. These casual portraits show us the men as they were, not the monsters often imagined, defeated radicals gazing off the page into the future. (He also drew a portrait of his jailer.)

While in prison, he also started work on a monumental painting, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, which he continued to work on after his release in the summer of 1795.

By the time he completed this masterwork, the Revolution had entered a new phase. In November of 1799, the French general and war hero Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup that resulted in him becoming the “First Consul” of the Republic, on his way to assuming the role of emperor four years later.

This period of David’s life would prove to be the artist’s high point. It also exemplifies the treacherous shoals that political artists must navigate.

David would become the new ruler’s artist of choice, and we owe David many of our most vivid images of Napoleon I. The hand in the coat we associate with Napoleon is from a portrait now hanging in the National Gallery in Washington. One of Bonaparte’s most heroic moments, the crossing of the Alps on a rearing steed, was also memorably captured by David. He was the a full-throated artistic propagandist for the new imperial order, which naturally raises an awkward question: How could this most ardent of Jacobins become an apologist for the gravedigger of the Revolution and the First French Republic?

Was he an opportunist? Did he feel compelled to paint what he did in order to survive?

Although the Met’s catalog dodges such questions, I think it would be wrong to ascribe David’s support for Napoleon entirely, or even mostly, to opportunism. That artists with a political bent might rotate with the political winds is not an unknown event, and we can view David as a precursor to the most famous examples from the Russian Revolution, such as the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and the composer Shostakovich.

But there is also a certain logic at work in the evolution of such avowedly political artists, and certainly in the case of David. After all, Napoleon’s political evolution from radical republican to emperor involved a desire to spread French revolutionary ideas as well as to create a new Empire modeled on that of Rome under Augustus—and David likely was moved by this paradoxical vision of Bonaparte.

This is most clearly expressed in his painting Napoleon Distributing the Eagles of 1809-1810. This depicts the Emperor on the Champ de Mars in 1804, just days after his self-coronation, handing out bronze eagles mounted on the top of blue regimental flagpoles, a design based on the imperial standards carried by the Roman legions. “Yes,” the painting and the preparatory drawings shown at the Met exhibit seem to say, “the Republic has been superseded by the Empire, but it is a supersession in continuity, since the same regiments that defeated monarchs will continue to fight together for the revolutionary ideals of France.”

The fall of Napoleon brought an abrupt end to David’s marriage of art and politics. The great artist found himself exiled in Brussels—and reduced to rendering mainly domestic, rather than world-historical scenes.

Jacques-Louis David Radical Draftsman is a fitting exploration of the first great radical artist, a master of propaganda whose greatest triumphs were a result of his unflagging willingness to place his enormous talents at the service of his deepest political beliefs.

Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.