You Know Who Sucks? Jacques-Louis David
Hey! We're finally talking about museum-type art!
I guess it’s time to talk about my least favorite painter. The art world is full of talented jerks, and if you throw a rock at the canon, you’re gonna hit someone who’s easy to hate. I’m not here to talk you out of whoever your bete noire happens to be, but I do want to spout off for a while about the guy I hate the most: Jacques-Louis David, the biggest kiss-ass in all of art history.
Honestly, the “biggest kiss-ass” thing is underselling the case for hating David. That was my gateway into hating David, but it turns out there’s a bunch more.
First, let’s establish who we’re talking about here. JLD* was a French painter who spanned the 18th and 19th centuries. His most prominent period overlapped with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. He was a tremendously gifted technical painter, as you can see here:
*Using “JLD” occasionally here just because typing his whole name out over and over is a drag. But the abbreviation feels weird, because I usually associate it with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has this mirror-image thing going by being as absolutely cool as David is sucky. Nature always balances out, I guess. Oh, while we’re all parenthetical, maybe this is a good place to point out that, being French, his last name is pronounced “Dah-veed.”
But as you can also see in that painting, he put his amazing technical gifts to an extremely shit use: glorifying Napoleon Bonaparte. All of his paintings from the Napoleonic era are glorifications of Bonaparte, showing the little shithead doing manly, glorious things like heroically riding horses or getting crowned or looking at the viewer with Imperial bedroom eyes. They’re propaganda, pure and simple.
And let’s be clear: Bonapartist propaganda is a bad thing to be cranking out. Napoleon Bonaparte was a bad person. He directly caused the deaths of millions of people for no reason other than national megalomania. He’s in that special class of bad historical people about whom the *best* thing you can say is, “well, he wasn’t quite as bad as Hitler.” It definitely does *not* reflect well on David to have been enthusiastically working to burnish his heroic public image. Propaganda paintings have a tough time being great art even when they’re not in service of bloodthirsty jabronis.
But the case against David is actually worse than that. Because the thing about Napoleon is that he gained power by essentially hijacking the French Revolution in its late stages (again, I’m REALLY compressing and paraphrasing a lot of complicated history here) away from civilian revolutionaries. And guess who, in earlier stages of the revolution, was an ardent supporter and pal of some of the leading (and worst) civilian revolutionaries? Our boy JLD, of course. His most famous non-Napoleon painting is probably this one romanticizing Marat, who was sort of the Sean Hannity of the French Revolution:
JLD did lots of other paintings glamorizing the early stages of the revolution; he was also close personal friends with Maximilien Robespierre, who is the person most responsible for the French Revolution’s image as a blood-soaked exercise in head-chopping terror.* During Robespierre’s time on top (and boy, did *that* end with a bang), David essentially served as artistic dictator within Paris, which, again, is not a great look.
*For all that Kids These Days like to push the idea that the French Revolution was about poor people rising up and introducing deserving rich people to the guillotine, the nasty truth is that it was generally more just people who happened to be on the wrong side of some ultraparanoid public official—often named Robespierre—who got executed.
So, to sum up this part: JLD was in tight with the absolute worst parts of the civilian leadership of the French Revolution, and then somehow managed to get in equally tight with the even-worse military dictator who displaced the civilian leadership. That’s an impressive side-switching survival move, if a really ugly one, and if nothing else is proof of some truly pantheon-level ass-kissing skills, easily up there with David’s exceptional painting skills.
But wait, you say: maybe this is all too harsh, maybe JLD was a perfectly OK guy who just did what he had to do to survive in a truly blood-curdling time. Maybe in peacetime he would come across as a decent dude who could paint really well. At least this is what the always-insists-on-being-fair part of my brain pointed out to me once when I was just idly sitting around thinking about how much I hate David.
So I did some digging. And, well, fair-minded brain, go pound sand, because Jacques-Louis David was a total butthole from a young age. As a young man, he got so pissy about not winning a prize from the French Academy that he went on a hunger strike for several days and wouldn’t eat until the faculty told him he was a special boy and should keep painting. This isn’t as bad as glorifying world-historical shitheads, but it definitely drives home the case that Jacques-Louis David was a dick at every age.
Was Jacques-Louis David important? I mean, siiiigh, yeah, of course he was. He was a technical master, he ended up affecting French art (and thus European/American art) downstream throughout the 19th century, and he helped to create or at least enshrine a system of iconography for political power images that is still in use now. He’s a big deal in art history. But he sucks.
This issue was partly inspired by reading Ian Davidson’s The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny. And to be honest, I can’t really recommend it. It’s fine, but the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking about how much better a job podcaster Mike Duncan had done covering the same material in his Revolutions podcast. Specifically thinking here of Duncan’s season covering the French Revolution, of course, but all of his seasons are fantastic, especially the Mexican Revolution and the current Russian Revolution season. In all cases, Duncan’s great both with research and with narrative, putting things in context and explaining why particular events or people are important. If you like history or politics, this one’s a winner.
Another one from Rebecca, the source of most of my good links: this great article about the pedal steel guitar, the weird, cranky instrument unfairly pigeonholed as a country thing.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!