Writing on the French Revolution, Karl Marx famously commented that the heroes of the revolution "performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases." The one painter who was almost single-handedly responsible for clothing the revolution in the mantle of the classical past was Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), one of the most controversial painters to have emerged from this turbulent period in the history of modern France. Although David's austere classical style has fallen out of fashion in recent years, Simon Lee's study David
does a fine job of rescuing the artist from antiquarian curiosity, and placing him right back at the heart of revolutionary France.
Lee charts the rise of David from relative mediocrity as a highly academic painter to his enthusiastic support for the Revolution of 1789, culminating in his remarkable painting Marat Breathing His Last (1793). Arrested and narrowly avoiding execution in the political backlash following the overthrow of Robespierre, David turned his back on politics to concentrate on his art, only to find himself catapulted back into the political limelight with his fervent embrace of Napoleon Bonaparte. This loyalty formed the foundation of some of David's most imposing paintings, from the equestrian portraits of Napoleon to the pomp of The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress. But once again, David's political hopes were dashed with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, which led the painter into self-imposed exile in Brussels, where he died a decade later.
Despite Lee's rather wooden prose, this is a thorough, detailed, and generously illustrated study of a fascinatingly contradictory, patrician, but technically brilliant painter. --Jerry Brotton
'This up-to-date overview of David is a seamless fusion of art and history. Filled with unfamiliar facts, observations, and corollary images, it rejuvenates the father of modern French painting within the drama of Revolution, Empire and Restoration.' (Robert Rosenblum, Department of Fine Arts, New York University) 'Art & Ideas has broken new ground in making accessible authoritative views on periods, movements and concepts in art. As a series it represents a real advance in publishing.' (Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate London) 'The format is wonderful and offers what had long been missing in academic studies: usable manuals for specific themes or periods...I am definitely not alone in welcoming Art & Ideas as a precious set of teaching tools.'(Joachim Pissarro, Yale University)