In 1794, Jacques-Louis David, superstar painter of the Old
Regime as well as the new
As frightening as his situation was, David’s accommodations were hardly Bastille-like. Arrested in May, released, then rearrested in August, he was taken to the House of Detention at the Hotel des Fermes on the rue de Grenelle. Instead of a cell, he was given a small studio belonging to a student of his who was serving in the army. His wife, from whom he had been divorced since March, took their children to visit. Another of his students brought him painting materials and the mirror in front of which he executed this self-portrait.
In it, he appears the handsome, fiercely passionate and intensely focused artist who had been the toast of the nation, that is until reaction to the excesses of the Revolution set in and the radical’s heads began to fall. Although it’s a strong and beautifully-executed self-portrait in the tradition of Rembrandt and Titian, the image is not altogether a true one. Missing is a prominent facial deformity caused by fencing scar on his right cheek suffered in his youth. Worse, a tumor had developed over the years, causing the cheek to swell even more. To his credit, it remains the only portrait detail he ever touched up.
If David may have been painting his epitaph, it transpired that he had many more miles to go than he realized at the time.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries who died beneath the blade of the guillotine, David was lucky in his relations. His brother-in-law, Charles Seriziat, was well-connected and intervened on David’s behalf, securing his release. The grateful painter immediately repaired to the Seriziat estate at Saint-Ouen. It was here he painted the fresh and tender portrait of his sister-in-law Emilie, Madame Seriziat.
Was ever a portrait more affectionate?
One can almost feel the artist’s relief and his reengagement with life in this image of a woman in springtime. We can guess that she has just come in from a walk in the garden. Her cheeks are flushed from the weather and she holds a bouquet of gathered flowers in one hand and the hand of her child in the other. The tones are red, green and pink, skillfully harmonized in a way that appears completely natural. Emilie rests on the edge of a table, shyly asking perhaps, what pose she should assume. The child stares at the painter with a child’s questions. “What is uncle Jacques doing? Is he finished? Can I play now?”
Jacques-Louis David was to live another thirty years, shine anew
during the reign of Bonaparte and die in exile in