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A master of propaganda, artist Jacques Louis David helped sell Frenchmen on the Revolution

New drawings exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art documents the artist’s creative process as he both painted and perpetrated great storms in French history

Jacques Louis David's “The Oath of the Tennis Court” was never finished. (Musée de Louvre, Paris, on deposit at the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon / RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, photo by Gérard Blot)
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In 1791, the French painter Jacques Louis David made a large, meticulously detailed drawing for a painting he never produced, called “The Oath of the Tennis Court.” It depicts a key moment from the French Revolution, in 1789, when representatives of the French people gathered to oppose the king and commit themselves to a new form of governance.

The drawing is full of bustle and incident. Curtains billow violently above the men below, waving hats and arms, focusing their energy on a standing figure who holds his right hand up in a solemn gesture of avowal. But something isn’t quite right about the whole scene. It teems with excitement, but never quite coheres into a meaningful narrative. It is both busy and static, and the impression is more stagy than dramatic.

There is evidence throughout the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman” that the artist might have improved the image had he been able to paint it. Many of the some 80 drawings, sketches and other works in the show document David’s creative process as he developed key paintings, heightening the drama, winnowing out unnecessary actors, focusing interactions with operatic intensity.

But “The Oath of the Tennis Court” was never finished. The Revolution, in which David (1748-1825) played a central role, with bloody hands, moved too quickly. Three years later, the artist, who was intimate with Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien Robespierre, was in jail along with other leaders of the Reign of Terror. He managed to avoid execution and, by 1804, was named first painter to the new emperor, Napoleon. And months after his imperial patron was packed off to St. Helena in 1815, he, too, became an exile, spending the last years of his life in Brussels.

A sense of speed is palpable throughout the exhibition. In his lectures on European history, published as “In Bluebeard’s Castle,” the critic George Steiner focused on speed during the years David was active. “The French Revolution and the Napoleon Wars,” wrote Steiner, “literally quickened the pace of felt time.” It was an era of “great storms of being.”

David, who voted to send Louis XVI to the guillotine, both painted and perpetrated those great storms. Early drawings, including pages from albums he made while studying in Rome, suggest a rapacious visual appetite. He made confident studies of the human form, cityscapes of the monumental architecture and statuary of the eternal city, and small studies of classic paintings. He fixed these sketches into volumes organized not by date, but by themes and visual affinities. These leave a confused sense of David’s development during these early years, after he won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1774, but also a clear impression of his ambition and talent. He would take Rome home with him when he returned to Paris in 1780 and use its visual material as inspiration throughout his life.

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Among the drawings made in Rome, the cityscapes seem most intimately connected with David’s later paintings. They are precise and curiously inanimate, like drawings for stage design. They don’t depict the organic existence of buildings in relation to each other, but suggest places where people might enter and exit, routes for procession, dramatic venues for a speech or lament. In his greatest paintings, we view these events as if from a seat in the stalls, perfectly framed and staged, all the players arrayed so as to be neatly seen from a single perspective. History isn’t just spectacle — it is always legible, comprehensible and delights the eye.

The tendency in David’s editing process is almost always to the hortatory. Sketches for the 1787 “The Death of Socrates,” in the Met’s collection, place the bowl of poisonous hemlock in the center of the drama. In one drawing, Socrates seems to dismiss the bowl; in another he rests his hand lightly on it. In the finished painting, his right hand is just above it, while he makes a rhetorical gesture with his left arm. He seems, in the final version, to be multitasking, nonchalantly grasping his own demise while making a few final remarks to a rapt audience.

While he was imprisoned, David made some of the most compelling drawings on view, of fellow prisoners. They are seen from the side, as if on coins or medallions, but they are surprisingly informal. The men, radicals responsible for the execution of so many citizens of France, look a little beleaguered and shabby. After he and many of his fellow Jacobins were released from prison, David claimed to have been only an artist, albeit one overwhelmed by the politics of the day. That was disingenuous, and sounds a bit like a comedian or actor today, wriggling out of responsibility for some cruel remark, claiming only to be an entertainer. He was, in fact, a master propagandist of the Revolution, celebrating its martyrs and mythologizing its leaders.

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The prison portraits are a breath of fresh air from the more theatrical David. Another leavening moment comes in his final years, in Brussels, when his drawings become more exploratory and intimate, as if the theatrical figures he painted earlier are heard conversing not in formal alexandrines, but ordinary dialogue. An 1825 drawing of his son Eugene and daughter-in-law Anne-Therese is among the most moving in the exhibition. Eugene, seen in the drawing looking up as if to his father’s heavenly ascent, inscribed it, the “last drawing by my poor father.”

David was old, and sick, at the time. Throughout his career, and in that flawed drawing of the Tennis Court Oath, he painted scenes of imagined social unity and reconciliation. When he died later in 1825, France had more than a century of social and political chaos still ahead, with Bourbons, Bonapartes and other rogues ready in the wings for yet more bloodletting. David made his portion of that thrilling to behold, and his art charged the atmosphere for decades of yet more storminess.

Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman Through May 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org.

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