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Below is a fictitious letter from Jacques-Louis David (a French Neoclassical painter), to his former wife during his incarceration in France near the end of the revolution. The French Revolution occupied the period between 1789–1799 and David (pronounced Dah-VEED) was an artist with strong political leanings. He started his studies in the Baroque style of the period but soon adopted a renaissance attitude after visiting Southern Italy in 1775.

The Baroque style was coming to an end, and Rococo (a playful indulgent style that drew on the decorative, namely architecture and interior design) was taking its place. Rococo style painting was extremely popular among the elitist and French nobility. David loathed the frivolity of Rococo, and, as one of the first successful propaganda artists, employed a strong hand in reviving an interest in classical art. (Classical art featuring clarity, logic, and order, and favoring line over color.)

David was much against Louis XVI and the effete aristocracy which kept the masses in abject poverty and Royals in riches. He joined the National Convention and became the "official" painter of the revolution.

It is rumored that David's ex-wife Marguerite-Charlotte Pécard, a Royalist, was instrumental in his release from prison in 1795. It is also rumored that "The Intervention of the Sabine Women" pays homage to her dedication. After his release David became the principal painter to Napoleon.

Famous paintings include:

(All at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques-Louis_David)

Oath of the Horatii (1784)
The Death of Socrates (1787)

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789)

The Death of Marat (1793)

The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799)

Napoleon Crossing through the St. Bernard Pass (1801)

Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814)


A letter from Jacques-Louis David to his former wife, Marguerite-Charlotte Pécoul – October 1794

My Dearest Charlotte,

How delighted I am to hear from you! I thank you for your compassionate concern at my incarceration, but I assure you these palace walls do not impose too great a hardship. I am allowed to paint, which passes the time in a prudent manner and turns my thoughts away from the harsh possibility of the guillotine. Though this is a dark time in my life it has allowed me the pleasure of introspection.

While you and I have never been in agreement politically, I have always appreciated our ability to be candid with each other, so please let me burden you one last time with my mention of Robespierre when I tell you how sorrowful his death makes me. Yet I would have walked the same road of revolution with him even knowing the outcome. In future though, I will attach myself to principles and not to men.1 I believed, in accepting the post of Legislator–an honorable post, but one very difficult to fulfill–that an upright heart would suffice, but i was lacking in the second quality, by which I mean insight.2

I can assure you at this time I am reflecting more on the meaning of my life as a painter rather than my politics. My solitude here inspires my art, as my thoughts turn ever toward my salons and the fine young painters who look to me for counsel. Should I survive this incarceration, I hope to devote more time to teaching. Ingres and Gros show much promise and would greatly benefit from my instruction.

I am now passing my time with landscapes, as I have a view of the garden from my small window, though I long for a model! Aside from one old guardsman who brings me my supper–I believe he has some sympathy with the Montagnards, namely my beloved Marat 3–there is no one to sit for me other than myself, which inspires a self-portrait.4

As time permits it, I look back on my art and the journey on which it has taken me. Only now do I see the naiveté and arrogance of my youth. At the time I felt my Prix de Rome winner "Antiochus and Stratonice" was a vigorous work filled with reason and clarity. Now I see it as a remembrance of that style I detest as it retains much of the soft theatrical melodrama that was sweeping the salons at that time. I struggled with that as you well know, though dear friends such as Fragonard survived well with commissions in that style. How I hate that loose frilly brushstroke, where is the form in all that? And moral content? No wonder Boucher and I could never agree, with his superficial subject matter - and those colors! I can not see how men of reason could cling to those witless perceptions of life. Though commissions of the aristocracy were good, I could never succumb. It was time for modernization.

I vividly remember my trip to Italy and how remarkably it changed my perceptions of the art of antiquity. I had firmly believed it could not seduce me for it lacked a certain liveliness in my mind. The ruins of Herculaneum, the Temples of Paestum and the Pompeiian collections at Naples, all conspired to open my eyes!5 The sculptural forms from antiquity called to me and I saw the imitation of nature in her most beautiful and perfect form.6 It is no wonder Poussin made Italy his home in his final years; how I wish I might have talked with our fellow countryman. His skill with line was admirable, his virtues of logic order and clarity were inspirational. And Caravaggio, his depiction of light was magnificent!

That trip changed my artistic vision, but the fruition of this eye-opening did not come until years later. And how fitting that it was the Paris performance of Corneille's "Horace" that inspired my work7 with yet another trip to Rome for the commission of "The Oath of the Horatii". If I owe my subject to Cornielle, I owe my painting to Poussin.8 Do you remember that time? Once I had completed it, I finally felt victorious over the trite bourgeoisie fluff that had plagued us for so long. The spell was broken! My confidence in my work and my mission to bring reason and order to painting had finally been realized and publicly acknowledged.

I enjoyed those years of glory and the ensuing commissions. My work has helped my cause in the revolution, and though all of this important work brought me where I am today I would not change a moment. I am proud to be called Robespierre of the brush. I wanted to elevate the minds of this generation and so I have. As I told the National Convention last year, the artist must be a philosopher. Socrates the skilled sculptor, Jean-Jacques the good musician and the immortal Poussin, tracing on the canvas the sublime lessons of philosophy, are so many proofs that an artistic genius should have no other guide except the torch of reason.9

The sun now casts long shadows, signaling supper time is nigh. I shall soon hear the guardsman's shuffling steps and the rattle of keys, so bid you a short farewell until we meet. I am pleasantly surprised at your request for a visit! Seeing your dear face again will be most welcome after enduring the harsh glances of my royalist jailers.

Please give my regards to Monsieur and Madame Serizat, I hope this note finds them well. And please let your sister know, should I should survive this confinement I would be happy to fulfill her request for a portrait.

Ever yours,
Jacques-Louis.

P.S. I hear rumor that some of my students will rally to my cause and petition for my release. This makes my heart fill with joy!


1. http://www.discovery.mala.bc.ca/web/ocs/webdav01.htm (bottom of #4)

2. http://sunsite.icm.edu.pl/cjackson/jdavid/jdavid_bio.htm

3. http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/art/neocl_dav_marat.html

4. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/david/prison.html

5. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online: http://members.cb.com/bol/topic?eu=29948&sctn=3 (paraphrased)

6. From Gardener's Art Through the Ages, Tansey & Kleiner, Tenth Edition pg. 917

7. http://www.etss.edu/hts/hts3/info6.htm

8. http://sunsite.icm.edu.pl/cjackson/jdavid/8horatii.htm (2nd paragraph)

9. http://www.nude-male-art.com/David.html


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