If Athens and Jerusalem were the twin poles of the ancient world, Paris and New York have jointly defined the modern one. That makes it all the more exciting that one of the City of Light’s greatest painters of the 19th century will be in residence in Gotham this spring.
“Jacques-Louis David: Radical Draftsman,” which opens February 17 and is up until May 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the first ever exhibit to focus on the Frenchman’s drawings. Many of the final works to which the sketches on display here point are at the Louvre, in many ways the political and artistic center of David’s life.
Helpfully, the paintings are reproduced here in miniature, so viewers can see how the story that begins in ink ends in paint. The show brings together more than 80 drawings from the span of David’s life, from his early days learning his craft in Paris and Rome to a late work, “Eugène David and His Wife, Anne-Thérèse,” drawn from the sunken perspective of a dying man.
At a moment when art can feel either adrift in conceptual outer space or hewed to the politics of the herd, David, who lived between 1748 and 1825, serves as a reminder of what it means to paint in the eye of the political storm.
David is the great visual storyteller of the French Revolution, but also played a starring role in its unfolding. He went from a protégé of the Ancien Régime to a comrade in arms of the architect of the Reign of Terror, Maximilian Robespierre. He voted to execute Louis XVI and was an impresario for the festivals that sought to entrench the new dispensation.
After Robespierre’s head joined many others by the side of the guillotine, David’s star fell. His eye for political patronage was almost as sharp as his feel for line and shade. He hitched his wagon to a young Corsican general named Napoleon, and all of a sudden he was back in the game, painting the iconic image of an emperor’s coronation, an Age of Enlightenment throwback to Charlemagne.
Napoleon’s defeat marked the end of David’s life as an intimate of the powerful. He spent his final years in exile. His legacy on French painting, though, was enormous. He was the great practitioner of neo-classicism, which marked the shift away from Rococo’s fevered ornamentalism and toward an interest in the stately depictions of the myths of Greece and Rome.
Even as David kept one eye on the distant past, his work has been seen as a milestone on the road to artistic modernity. Painters since antiquity had depicted contemporary events, but always backstopped and overlaid with symbolism, history, and broader frames of meaning.
All of that changed with the French Revolution, which literally and metaphorically smashed the idols of the past — toppling the Catholic Church, proclaiming a new religion of reason, and even renaming the months. Suddenly, there was no King and no God. David’s classicism masks an abyss.
As the art historian Timothy James Clark writes in his essay “Painting in the Year 2,” about “The Death of Marat,” David’s most famous painting: “There is no other substance out of which paintings can now be made — no givens, no matters and subject-matters, no forms, no usable pasts.”
While Mr. Clark might be correct that after David’s political painting there was no turning back to perspectives draped in allusion and allegory, “Radical Draftsman” is less concerned with David’s place in history than with the history of David’s art. By focusing on his drawings, the show delivers an X-ray of a genius at work, reaching for what the show’s curator, Perrin Stein, calls “hard-won triumphs.”
“The Death of Socrates” is one of David’s most famous paintings, and the Met is its home turf. It shows the philosopher continuing to prod and teach even as the hemlock begins to circulate through his veins, undergoing a kind of extreme unction of reason rather than revelation. Here it is on display next to a host of drawings and early sketches, seen evolving into a masterpiece.
We also see studies for “The Oath of the Horatii,” as David charts a course toward a masterpiece. Geometries shift, angles adjust, and color evolves. Sometimes David telescopes out to reset the scene, and we see a vision come into focus from frame to frame.
Other times, as in drawings for the tragic “Lictor Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons,” he zooms in to spotlight individual figures. One such study, “Seated Woman Lamenting,” stopped me in my tracks, the subject’s sinewy exposed arms contrasting with a face shrouded in sorrow. Solo drawings for “Distribution of the Eagles” feel like bespoke character studies.
Seeing the drawing and final painting of “Paris and Helen” side by side illustrates not only the nuanced evolution of David’s process, but also the joy of seeing black and white explode into color. These drawings are not just rough drafts en route to clean painterly copy. They possess their own freestanding charisma, a reminder of the beauty of the unfinished.
The most well-known example of this stands sentinel to the viewer’s immediate right when she enters the exhibition. “The Oath of the Tennis Court” is a rendering of bodies straining toward a new civic compact, a crowd groping in the direction of a fresh mode of governance. There is no finished final painting, however. Fast-moving revolutionary politics left this particular vision behind, suspended in ink.
David’s drawings disclose just how thoroughly he leaned on the past to navigate his present. A set of sketches he made as a young painter in Italy served him in good stead his entire working life, and antiquity was never far from his mind — or brush. “Radical Draftsman” features a generous selection of classical figures.
David was a Jacobin for a chapter, but one who knew that the word “radical” comes from radix, or root. Uprooting requires a return to the soil. This painter who lent his vision to those who sought to undo history was deeply and hopelessly in love with it.
The revolution faltered and the emperor died a broken man. David’s drawings endure, lines arced at eternity’s vanishing point.
Image: 'The Oath of the Tennis Court,' Jacques-Louis David, sketch, 1791. © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN / © Jean-Marc Manaï, via Wikimedia Commons