Of all the segments of Simon Schama’s The Power of Art, the episode covering Jacques-Louis David may have shaken me the most. Standing before The Death of Marat (above), David's propaganda piece martyrizing Jean-Paul Marat, Schama looks into the camera and says, “Do I like David? I don’t. He’s a monster.” David, born on this date in 1748, dazzles with the power of his images, and that is the key to his monstrosity and his seductiveness. With David begins the modern concept of propaganda in all its most destructive uses by the powerful over the powerless.
When I was too young to know better, David always struck me as one of those ideal painters, taking ideals and ideas and making them live through art. Even after I was old enough to know better, I found myself standing before such works as The Oath of the Horatii (above, from 1784) and feeling myself getting suckered in by the classical ideals of Dulce et decorum est, without Wilfred Owen’s caustic codicil. Part of me wishes that the power of art could be harnessed for the furthering of ideals, but a more savvy part of me realizes that such power is too easily misappropriated. The path from David’s Oath of the Horatii to his contemporary depiction of The Tennis Court Oath to The Triumph of the Will to costume parades on aircraft carrier decks is a short one ideologically, regardless of the passage of time.
And, yet, I always held out hope that the monster inside David would always lose out to the angel that could paint works such as Madame Recamie (above), which floored me with its balance and classical poise when I saw it in the flesh at the Louvre, which exists today in no small part due to the early efforts of David to create a national museum for France. Questions of morality aside, you can’t ever accuse David of coming up short in person, unlike so many other painters known just through reproductions. The warmth of his Portrait of Monsieur Lavoisier and his wife (1788) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York almost makes me forget how David contributed to the excesses of the French Revolution that exploded into “The Reign of Terror” that cost the Lavoisiers and so many others their lives. Do I like David? I have to say, no, too. Do I wish I could? That’s a different question.