Sunday, October 19, 2014

Jacques-Louis David: Trick or Treat Painter?

Jacques-Louis David
Wikimedia Commons: Francois-Joseph Navez
 Hey folks it’s that time again! It’s the time when kids  dress up in the attire of princesses and superheroes of every kind, shouting the age old words “Trick or Treat”. These words are written on millions of candy bags, lanterns, and party favors, as Americans succumb to the seasonal craze. These words must also have been painted across the face of Neo-Classical painter Jacques-Louis David, but the aristocratic French government never seemed to notice. Born in 1748, David spent his early years under the tutelage of Neo-Classical pioneer Joseph-Marie Vien. So it was only destiny that, by age 18, the exceptional young artist was enrolled at the Académie Royale (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture). As he rose to fame, David began to incorporate political messages into his paintings. One of his most famous works is the “Oath of Horatii”, which he painted just preceding the French Revolution.
Face value message (The Treat): David depicts a legend about the founding of Rome. He tells the story of three brothers that make an oath to their father, swearing allegiance in the defense of their city even if it means their death.

The Oath of Horatii by Jacques-Louis David; the Louvre Museum
Wikimedia Commons: Web Gallery of Art
What David was really saying (The Trick): Ah, hey guys, I don’t know if you’ve noticed lately, but the rich are way, way up there and we are kind of way, way down here. We really need to follow the example of the Horatii brothers and be willing to give our lives to guarantee the good of the state. Just a suggestion.

Under absolute monarchs such as King Louis XIV and King Louis XVI, the aristocrats had been given many opportunities to enjoy absolute luxury, while the rest of France waded in poverty, hunger, and disease. In the face of such turmoil and unease between the rich and poor classes, David presents the powerful idea of the willingness to die for the good of one’s country. Even the sharp lines that comprise the bodily figures of the Horatii brothers speaks to the urgency and seriousness that David wants to communicate. Such artwork cannot be seen in any other light: David was calling France to a revolution. Perhaps the most ironic thing is that King Louis XIV didn’t even notice the subtle message of David’s painting. Commissioning this painting himself, King Louis XVI probably gave David a simple pat on the back (in the most honorable and royal way, of course) and said “Here’s another one for the Louvre”. Let’s skip ahead nine years. It was King Louis XVI who walked to the wretched guillotine in the presence of the commoners that he had for so long oppressed. Funny, the only costume he wore on that day was a simple coat, breeches, and short hair so the blade would have a clear shot for his neck! Oh, where would history be without the painters?

The Execution of King Louis XVI
Wikimedia Commons: Hector Fleischmann, La Guillotine en 1793



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