Regarded in his time as the most important painter in France, Jacques Louis David (1748–1825) produced major canvases that shaped the public’s perceptions of historical events in the years before, during, and after the French Revolution. Drawings were the primary vehicle by which he devised and refined his groundbreaking compositions. Opening February 17, 2022, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman is the first exhibition devoted to works on paper by this celebrated and influential artist. Through some 80 drawings and sketches from the collections of The Met and numerous private and institutional lenders from the United States and abroad—including rarely loaned or newly discovered works—visitors will see the progress of his ideas as he worked to create his masterful paintings. A highlight of the exhibition will be a work in The Met collection, The Death of Socrates (1787)—David’s most important painting in America—which will be displayed along with preparatory drawings that reveal his yearslong thought process and planning.
The exhibition is made possible by the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust.
Additional support is provided by the Margaret and Richard Riney Family Foundation and The Schiff Foundation.
The exhibition—the first to focus on David’s preparatory studies—looks beyond his public successes to chart the moments of inspiration and the progress of ideas, both artistic and psychological. The works will be presented chronologically, starting with David’s early training in Rome. Sketches from this period represent the vast store of motifs that he mined for decades thereafter, including for his most famous paintings.
The works David submitted to the Salons after returning to France heralded a powerful new neoclassical style that drew its inspiration from classical antiquity. Paintings like The Oath of the Horatii (1784) and The Death of Socrates (1787) won instant acclaim and buttressed his growing reputation as leader of the French school. Several drawings on view demonstrate the artist’s struggles to heighten the psychological impact and create a more powerful overall composition.
Rebelling against the constraints of France’s centralized monarchy in its waning days, David embraced the changes wrought by the Revolution of 1789. His most ambitious project—a depiction of the Oath of the Tennis Court, the event in which representatives of different classes of French society pledged to draft a constitution to counterbalance the absolute authority of the king—was never completed. The exhibition will feature a large presentation drawing that is one of David’s supreme achievements, deftly redeploying the language of the classical past to imbue a contemporary event with the drama and gravitas of a history painting.
David’s support of the more radical faction of the fledgling Republic led to his imprisonment. After his release, he attempted to regain dominance of the French school by exploring themes of national reconciliation through historical subjects like The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). Eventually, David reclaimed the spotlight through his support of Napoleon Bonaparte. David’s magisterial canvas memorialized the glittering spectacle in Notre Dame cathedral that marked Napoleon’s ascent from successful general to crowned emperor of France in 1804.
After a string of military defeats led to Napoleon’s downfall and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1816, David—a former regicide who had lent his talents to gilding the emperor’s image—was banished. He went into exile and spent his final decade working in Brussels.
Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman was organized by Perrin Stein, Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.
The catalogue is made possible by the Drue E. Heinz Fund.
Additional support is provided by the Tavolozza Foundation and Mireille and Hubert Goldschmidt.
A related installation, In the Orbit of Jacques Louis David: Selections from the Department of Drawings and Prints, on view January 20–May 10, 2022, will focus on David’s legacy through works by his pupils and contemporaries (Gallery 690).