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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Painting and Politics

Except for the occasional presidential portrait left behind by each administration to grace the walls of the White House, painters and politicians in our time, rarely cross paths.  About the closest artists ever come to anything governmental might be a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and recently even they've taken to supporting more cutting-edge arts over traditional painting.  That's probably just as well because in those instances when art and politics have crossed paths the results have usually been beneficial to neither craft.  Perhaps the most noteworthy figure with which to illustrate this fact would be the French Classical painter, Jacques-Louis David (pronounced DAH-veed.

David's 1791 design of a
"Republican costume."
He was born in 1748.  When he was nine, his father was killed in a duel.  His guardian took him from school and installed him in the atelier of the Rococo painter, Francois Boucher.  However, just across the street, was the studio of Joseph Marie Vien, one of the founders of the Classical school.  It was here he found his home.  Aside from the fact Vien later became director of the French Academy and took David with him, he is today, at best, a footnote in textbooks in which he is recalled as being David's art teacher.  David, on the other hand, became the bedrock foundation upon with nineteenth century French art soared to incredible heights.  He became the director of art during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire that followed.  Quite apart from his excellent draftsmanship as seen in his classic painting, Oath of the Horatii, David's impact upon the period extended even to designing classical (read Greco-Roman) garments for the politically correct French citizens of the time.  The women loved his gauzy, empire style outfits (as did the men, no doubt) but these same men balked at wearing his silly togas.

The Oath of the Horatii,
1784-85, Jacques-Louis David

For David, the only worthy subject matter in painting was that which illustrated and glorified heroic, patriotic, classical allusions and allegories.  He hated Dutch and Flemish painting of the time because he felt their realism ridiculed the human race.  He proposed that they not only be removed from sight but destroyed.  He wanted a law passed forbidding all artists to paint anything except patriotic subjects.  In 1792, his longing to be a sort of "art dictator" of the time led him to be elected a member of The Convention.  For a time he was even chairman of this kangarooish court.  He was one of 361 members who voted in favor of the decapitation of Louis XVI.  The matter was decided by a single vote, so in effect, he (not quite single-handedly, of course) brought the French monarchy crashing down in the flames of the French Revolution.  However, with the fall of Napoleon (for whom he was the court painter) the Royalists never forgave him for his part in the "legal murder" of their king. Around 1820, David was forced to flee Paris for his life.  He died in exile in Brussels in 1825, having been struck by a carriage as he was leaving the theater.

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