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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

David, Jacques Louis


The Intervention of the Sabine Women
1799
oil on canvas
385 x 522 cm
Louvre Museum, Paris, France

This painting depicts Romulus's wife Hersilia - the daughter of Titus Tatius, leader of the Sabines - rushing between her husband and her father and placing her babies between them. A vigorous Romulus prepares to strike a half-retreating Tatius with his spear, but hesitates. As one can see, the style of painting then, showed them to be naked, with the women wearing clothes.
The rocky outcrop in the background is the Tarpeian Rock, a reference to civil conflict, since the Roman punishment for treason was to be thrown from the rock. According to legend, when Tatius attacked Rome, he almost succeeded in capturing the city because of the treason of the Vestal Virgin Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, governor of the citadel on the Capitoline Hill. She opened the city gates for the Sabines in return for 'what they bore on their arms.' She believed that she would receive their golden bracelets. Instead, the Sabines crushed her to death with their shields, and she was thrown from the rock which since bore her name.

Jacques Louis David (1748 - 1825) was the most celebrated highly influential French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the prominent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and severity, chiming with the moral climate of the final years of the Ancien Regime.

David won wide acclaim with his huge canvases on classical themes. He was a painter to the king, Louis XVI, who had been the purchaser of his principal works, and his popularity was soon immense. He later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre, and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre's fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon I. It was at this time that he developed his 'Empire style', notable for its use of warm Venetian colors. David had a huge number of pupils, making him the strongest influence in French art of the 19th century, especially academic Salon painting.

David was born in the year when new excavations at the ash-buried ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were beginning to encourage a stylistic return to antiquity. His father, a prosperous dealer in textiles, was killed in a duel in 1757, and he was subsequently raised by two uncles. After classical literary studies and a course in drawing, he was placed in the studio of a history painter. At age 18 he was enrolled in the school of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. After four failures in the official competitions and years of discouragement that included an attempt at suicide, he finally obtained, in 1774, the Prix de Rome, a government scholarship that not only provided a stay in Italy but practically guaranteed lucrative commissions in France. In Italy there were many influences, including those of the dark-toned 17th-century Bolognese school, the serenely classical Nicolas Poussin, and the dramatically realistic Caravaggio. David absorbed all three, with an evident preference for the strong light and shade of the followers of Caravaggio.
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