Jacques Louis David. Radical Draftsman
Metropolitan Museum of Art
February 17 – May 15, 2022
“There are questions of attribution around David’s drawings that raise almost insurmountable obstacles for an understanding of David and the genesis of his paintings.”
Some day I’m going to design ratings emojis for museum exhibitions. First among them will be the “No Waves” emoji, three stylized blue waves behind a red cross-out sign. I’m going to need it for all those exhibitions that follow the tried-and-true: no bold thesis, no rewriting of the canon, no revisionism. You’d think that was the norm at the Met, but in actuality there’s plenty of interesting experiments going on behind the scenes, just not so that you’d notice if you’re a casual visitor. There’s a display in the Greek Galleries—it’s been there for years—that lays out the evidence for the existence of a Black potter in Ancient Athens. Has anybody noticed?
By definition a show devoted to Jacques Louis David should be making waves, especially a show around his preparatory drawings: drawings with the implied intention of working out the details and kinks in projected paintings. David: superstar artist of the French Revolution, Master of the Guillotine, who went from up-and-coming painter for the King to King-killer painter of the Revolution, a close friend of Marat, ally of Robespierre in the National Convention; who went on to be painterly lickspittle to Napoleon. David had hundreds of students, occupying prominent positions from Havana to Saint Petersburg. Even so, after he died an exile following the Restoration of the Monarchy, it was hard to get his work shown, even at the Louvre where the director was a former student. With that kind of rep there’s always a chance the peasants might be inspired in the wrong way, especially in an exhibition like this one, focusing as it does on the traditional processes by which David developed his radical ideas.
Assuming they were radical ideas to begin with. That issue got settled in 1989, when David and his productions were trotted out to celebrate the Bicentenary of the French Revolution, at which point it was declared that David wasn’t a political artist at all, just an artist who happened to paint whatever politically-minded themes were called for. In the catalog for the present exhibition Philippe Bordes, the preeminent expert on David and a major actor in David’s neutering, raises “the idea of David as a pragmatic artist.” “He had no set principles to inculcate.” 1 Sure I paint stuff, but my real passion is sending people to the guillotine. Bordes and the gay anarcho-Trotskyite Daniel Guérin have similar perspectives on David: To Guérin David was a “cynical lackey of the Bourgeoisie.” To Bordes that would qualify as a compliment.
But I need another emoji: the “Artwashing” emoji, an icon of a frame half-obscured by suds. The Art Newspaper got it right about the motivation for this show: “New discoveries in Met show of David sketches" reads the header. According to the curator (as cited in the text), the David show will present "a bunch of new discoveries," and — get this! — one of those discoveries is "on loan from the Chinese collector who bought it at auction for just [sic] over $2.5 m.” 2 As I wrote a few years back, this type of statement rightly raises a suspicion
“that the Caravaggio on loan from a potential donor contains troubling passages that raise questions about its imputed caravagioicity and questions, therefore, about the benefit to museum and donor alike of the absence of an honest and open discussion of such passages.“ 3
Spot the Error: my favorite part of museum teaching. Think on your feet. Uncover the logical contradictions behind the show’s assumptions. It’s a game even an untrained amateur can play. In David’s case it’s egregious. I should know, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on David and a single painting that plays a prominent part in this show, The Lictors returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons. 4 There are questions of attribution around David’s drawings that raise almost insurmountable obstacles for an understanding of the genesis of his paintings. This show does not address them.
The difficulties began after David’s death in 1825, when his sons attempted to dispose of his vast collection of drawings in the face of considerable hostility. As Perrin Stein, the curator for this show, elegantly writes,
"The sale catalogue assured prospective buyers that these paraphs, as they were called [viz. the initials of the sons] guaranteed the authorship of each work, and that everything sold would 'forever keep its authenticity.' It seems clear today, however, that in their zeal to safeguard the integrity of their father's oeuvre, Jules and Eugène swept in a number of sheets, presumably by friends or students, that had been kept in his studio among David's own works." 5
How big a “number of sheets” was that? Like many artists before and since, David kept a pile of images for future use. Some were his own work, many were not. There’s an example in this show, an album of drawings or rather, fragments of drawings arranged thematically. This type of arrangement was an integral part of studio practice, going back to the twelfth century.
David‘s relations with his students, on the other hand, were truly revolutionary. His studio was intensely collaborative, almost democratic; it included women. Students were called on to collaborate on projects, even on finished paintings. 6 Even where no particular commission was involved, projects were assigned or initiated to resolve specific problems and develop particular strengths. For instance, there is a series of drawings in the show that focus on the distribution of light and shadow across a design; many are so technically weak that it stretches credulity to hold David accountable. Such crude attempts raise another question particular to David’s practice: the question of the artist’s “hand,” which is supposedly identifiable in any artist’s oeuvre and helps set it apart. One senses that David considered the individual hand to be merely another iconographic tool. One could change hands as one switched between historical traditions in composition or between local colors. (There is a nice example of that in the foreground of David’s painting of the Death of Socrates, on view in the middle gallery.) The overlapped meanings in David’s artworks cannot be disassociated from the intended symbolism of gestures, props, and even colors.
Then there is the question of narrative intention. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studios, drawings were intended as preparation for the career-making competitions organized by the Royal Academy and its successors, competitions whose theme was invariably based on Greek or Roman narratives. These narratives were pretty much interchangeable. As the influential German critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing suggested in his Laokoon, the tension between ascribed narrative and image was symptomatic of a tension between individual affect and transcendent harmony. The Laokoon was not translated into French until after the Fall of Robespierre, but David was familiar with these ideas through his close reading of Johann Georg Sulzer, the German philosopher and neo-Classicist. 7 The preparatory drawings on view at the Met could be preparatory for anything, or for nothing at all.
Other drawings may not have been preparatory at all, but executed after the finished work they are erroneously thought to anticipate. After the high-end market had collapsed following the death, flight or confiscation of the property of noble patrons, many artists were reduced to producing and selling cheap drawings and prints, sometimes selling door-to-door. David himself, while imprisoned after the death of Robespierre, executed an elegant series of medallions of his revolutionary colleagues in imitation of and perhaps in preparation for those inexpensive etchings of revolutionary personalities that were widely distributed at the time. These medallions can be seen in the exhibition’s last and third room. The problem grows even more thorny when one considers that David’s students or others outside his studio may have drawn copies of works by the Master, not as preparation but as a commentary, a compliment, and a financial opportunity. It would be futile to attempt to place any one of these drawings within a linear development forward toward a datable, finished painting, especially considering their tendency to update the political implications of these works. I have spoken elsewhere of the common tendency in the French Revolution to reconfigure works of art so as to extract whatever one wished to have been their original political meaning. 8 David was a prime candidate for this kind of overwriting. The past fifty years have seen a movement to obfuscate these meanings, starting with Robert L. Herbert, who in 1972 undertook to assign premature and incoherent dates to the series of drawings leading up to David’s Brutus, among the most politically didactic of David’s paintings. Herbert naïvely believed that any drawing that could be claimed to precede the taking of the Bastille could not possibly be “political,” and proceeded to backdate the preparatory drawings to fit his theory. 9 The middle room of “David. Radical Draftsman” is devoted in great part to the preparatory drawings and sketches for the Brutus. Herbert’s dating remains, unaltered.
This is where simple sensitivity to drawing or painterly techniques is of no help, either for the art historian or the casual visitor, absent a grasp of the complex symbolism of gesture and prop that David attempted to share with or hide from, his audience. Let us not forget that the Italian word for “Drawing” is disegno, “Intention.” (French uses similar homonyms.) To understand the sequence of these drawings one would have to understand the intentions behind them, which in turn would require a grasp of the evolving symbolic (or “ideological”) intent of each work at a particular moment in time. Without a solid grasp of David’s system of thought it’s impossible to understand what he intended to present to, or hide from, his audience. David, as Perrin Stein reminds us, was “An artist who worked his whole life to achieve clarity and legibility in his narrative.” 10
If David did so, however, it was because the circumstances made clarity and legibility so hard to achieve, and this not merely in the realm of Art.
May 13, 2022
Games Positivists Play
Newsletter: Emotional Communism, Dong Xichang, The Felicia Collection, etc.
Philippe Bordes, "Elders, Contemporaries, and Pupils : David's Drawings in Context." Jacques Louis David ; Radical Draftsman, ed. Perrin Stein. Exhibition Catalog (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022), 36.
J. S. Marcus, “New Discoveries in Met show of David Sketches.” The Art Newspaper No 342 (February 2022): 49.
Paul Werner, Museum, Inc.. Inside the Global Art World (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2005), 15.
Paul Werner. David’s Basket. Art and Activism in the French Revolution. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Art History, City University of New York, 1998.
Perrin Stein, "The Long Meditation," Jacques Louis David ; Radical Draftsman, ed. Stein. Exhibition Catalog (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022), 20.
Thomas E. Crow, Emulation. Making Artists for Revolutionary France. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Etienne-Jean Delécluze, David. Son école & son temps (Paris: Didier 1855), 125.
Paul Werner. Elogio del Vandalismo / In Praise of Vandalism. Lecture delivered at MACRO Asilo, Museum of Contemporary Art (Rome, December 1, 2018).
Robert L. Herbert. David, Voltaire, Brutus and the French Revolution: an essay in Art and Politics. New York: Viking, 1972.
Perrin Stein. "Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman . Virtual Opening.“ Video, February, 2022.