Jacques Louis David

30 August 2012

Monsieur Lavoisier and his Wife, 1788, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The carriage drove around the vast, gold, stone edifice of the Louvre, then pulled up in one of the huge courtyards. The palace had been abandoned when the royal family moved to Versailles in the last century and was now filled with ramshackle apartments, mostly inhabited by artists and their families while the once great galleries were used as studios for their work. 

I looked up at the tall, stately windows as I jumped down from the carriage, smiling to see gaily coloured curtains hanging there and jugs of milk on all of the sills. When the weather was warm, laundry was hung from the windows to dry, giving the courtyard a festive appearance. The smell was the same though, the rich, delicious scent of meat stews and soups cutting through the frosty air.

‘You wouldn’t think this was once the home of royalty,’ I remarked to Soeur Clotilde as we crossed the icy courtyard to the entrance to David’s studio. It was quiet that day with only a few pupils bravely enduring the cold as they smoked their pipes on the steps and put the world to rights. 

I glanced at them enviously as I went past, wishing I could be like them and live free from my family and all the social constraints that they imposed upon me. I wondered what their lives were like and imagined myself in their place, living in an apartment in the streets around the Palais Royal, going out every morning for my own bread and staying up late over a bottle of wine discussing art and politics.

They stared at us too as we walked to the door, their eyes curious and a little mocking as they obviously wondered what a nun and a little Penthémont girl were doing here. Soeur Clotilde’s white habit and my prim red woollen uniform marked us out as conspicuous amongst the art students, who were both sombrely clad and bohemian.

‘Who is that girl?’ I heard one of them ask, not troubling to lower his voice. ‘Not one of the models surely?’ They all laughed and I blushed crimson.

‘Ssh, it is the youngest daughter of the Comte de Saint-Valèry,’ someone else replied, a handsome boy with keen blue eyes and a mop of blond hair that fell about his shoulders. ‘You know …’

My ears strained to catch the rest but the big door swung shut behind us and muffled his voice. 

I noticed Soeur Clotilde giving me a curious look and realised that I was frowning and biting my lower lip, beset by the familiar feeling that there was some big secret people weren’t telling me. I wasn’t an idiot. I had seen the looks and the way that people broke off conversations when I approached. I had heard the whispers. I guessed that it was something to do with my mother, with Sidonie but what? What did everyone else know?

I forced myself to smile as we stepped into the vast, white gallery that served as David’s studio. The air was filled with the sharp, acrid odour of oil paints and turpentine and all of the walls were covered with canvasses: some finished, others waiting for their final touches. Leaning against the wall by the door, in pride of place, was his recently completed portrait of the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his young wife, Marie-Anne, who worked as his assistant. I paused for a second to admire the masterly way that David had painted the soft folds of her muslin dress and to gaze up at her pretty face, filled with envy for this other girl who had had the good fortune to marry a great man and then be treated by him as an equal. It was exactly what I wanted for myself but had no hope of achieving.

‘Mademoiselle de Saint-Valèry,’ David himself greeted me from the front of the class. That day’s model, a young blonde girl, was sitting in a chair beside him, draped with sheets in a classical fashion.  Her eyes rolled up dramatically towards the ceiling in a pose that I was sure was very difficult to hold. ‘I am glad that you were able to get here.’

I smiled and nodded. ‘It would take more than snow to keep me away, monsieur.’

I handed my cloak to Soeur Clotilde. A few of the other pupils had looked up curiously as we walked in but most now bent their heads to their work again with only one or two continuing to stare at me. I was not the only girl in the class, but I was the only one in a school uniform. 

I looked at the model for a moment. Then I set to work, outlining her figure on the paper, and softly adding some shading to round out her contours. 

David came and stood behind me. ‘Very good, very good indeed, mademoiselle but …’ He leaned forward. ‘May I?’ He took my charcoal and then went over my careful lines with bolder, darker strokes that made the drawing somehow come to life. ‘It is always the same, mademoiselle, you start off so carefully, so precisely and we have to tease the art out of you all over again.’ 

‘I wish that I could devote more time to drawing,’ I said with regret. ‘I always feel so rusty when I come here. Perhaps I should ask Madame Abbesse to let me have some time to spend on my art?’

He smiled. ‘Perhaps.’ There was a pause and I stifled a giggle, knowing what was coming as he cleared his throat. ‘Is Madame la Marquise in Paris this Winter?’ 

He meant my sister, Cassandre, who had married the Marquis de Vautière two years earlier amidst great fuss and pomp. Monsieur David had the most terrible crush on her and never failed to drop her into our conversations. He was desperate to paint her and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my sister had only two requirements from portrait painters – that they be fashionable and that they be flattering. Poor Monsieur David was neither sufficiently fashionable nor flattering to please Cassandre.

‘He is far too insightful,’ my sister had said with a laugh when I last broached the subject with her. ‘If I allow him to paint me then everyone will know just how awful I really am, and I won’t have any friends left.’ — Excerpt from Blood Sisters, Melanie Clegg, 2011..

Madame de Verninac, 1799, Musée Louvre.

On this day, 30th August in 1748, Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris. He was my favourite artist for most of my adolescence and featured quite heavily in my dissertation about the representation of Marie Antoinette (I think I managed to shoehorn him into pretty much every single essay that I wrote while at university). I found his work thrillingly dynamic in my youth but my tastes have moved on somewhat from such austerity, although I’m still staggered by his portraits and epic Classical pieces.

Here’s a few of my favourites…

The Coronation of Napoléon (1807, Musée Louvre, photos by me) is an epic piece that truly staggers pretty much everyone who sees it and is a fitting testament to both the ambition and also immense ego of Napoléon Bonaparte. I love that David chose to soften the overpowering grandeur and opulence somewhat by depicting the moment that Napoléon crowned his wife, Joséphine and for me this remains, perhaps paradoxically, the most beguiling and charming of all her portraits.

Anne-Marie-Louise Rilliet, Comtesse de Sorcy-Thélusson (1790, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Munich). One of a pair of portraits of the daughters of a wealthy Genevan banker, both of whom had married into the French aristocracy. Both girls are dressed simply but with great taste and their portraits serve as a contrast to the flowing locks, lustrous satins and rich jewels of portraitists such as Madame Vigée Lebrun.

Jeanne-Robertine Rilliet, Marquise d’Orvilliers (1790, Musée Louvre, photos by me). Madame d’Orvilliers was the younger sister of Madame la Comtesse and was just eighteen years old when David painted this portrait.

Jeanne-Françoise-Julie-Adélaïde Bernard, Madame Récamier (1800, Musée Louvre, photos by me). La belle Juliette.

Émilie Pécoul, Madame Seriziat (1795, Musée Louvre, photos by me). Madame was David’s favourite sister-in-law and he recuperated at her house after his release from the Luxembourg Prison at the end of 1794. There is a companion portrait of her husband and they make a handsome and striking pair – smiling, pink cheeked, healthy, confident and very much at their ease.

Adélaïde Piscatory, Madame Pastoret (1792, The Art Institute of Chicago). Madame was a former pupil of David, for whom he would always feel much fondness. The Pastorets were very typical of the wealthy liberal classes who wholeheartedly welcomed the social reform and intellectual progress of the Revolution in its infancy only to be stung when it all turned nasty. Madame Pastoret’s husband emigrated from France after the execution of Louis XVI, while his wife remained and was imprisoned during the Terror. The baby in the cradle, little Amédée-David Pastoret was later to become Councillor of State under the Restoration.

Madame Charles-Louis Trudaine (1792, Musée Louvre). This portrait of the twenty three year old Marie Louise Trudaine is a bleak comparison to the rosy cheeked Madame Seriziat above. Madame Trudaine and her husband, a wealthy civil servant, moved in similar circles to the Pastorets, but there’s an atmosphere of sadness and worry about this piece which suggests that she was rather less enamoured with living in Exciting Times than many of her contemporaries. Or maybe she just didn’t like the smell of David’s studio or had an itchy corset or maybe she had a cold…

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