On this day in 1748, the great French painter Jacques-Louis David was born. He is one of the greatest of the neoclassical painters. Unfortunately, his reputation has been tarnished because of his involvement with the French Revolution. This attitude is especially strange in the United States. Certainly things got out of hand. I’m not in favor of killing people and certainly killing Louis XVI was counterproductive. But no one today who is concerned about this regicide seems terribly concerned about the low life expectancy of the poor.
What I found most interesting in the Wikipedia discussion of David’s involvement with the revolution was its tone of surprised that David would be involved, “It is uncertain why he did this, as there were many more opportunities for him under the King than the new order…” Really?! Based upon this theory of psychology, people only do what it is in their best economic interests. This sounds like it was written by some economist from the Chicago school. It’s pretty clear David believed in the cause, how ever much it was mismanaged.
Regardless, we should give David credit for even surviving. His two notable revolutionary friends, Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre, both died rather young as a result of their revolutionary acts. He was eventually exiled, although Louis XVIII offered him a royal position as an option because, you know, a great painter is hard to find. Instead, David moved to Brussels. That alone should explain why he was involved in the revolution: because he believed in it. He lived, worked, and taught in Brussels until his death in 1825.
Here is David’s great painting The Death of Marat, done shortly after Marat’s assassination:
And to show you just how great he was throughout his life, here is his last painting, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus, which he completed at the age of 76:
Happy birthday Jacques-Louis David!