November 8, 2002
IRONY?:The gathering of the Schama groupies: A few fortunate art fans had the Metropolitan Museum to themselves and a renowned art critic as a tour guide. (Jenny Jackson, November 06, 2002, The Ottawa Citizen)
Jacques-Louis David was one of France's most gifted artists and he lived through its most tumultuous time. His painting of Socrates, painted in 1787, two years before the French revolution, is one of classicism's "canonical paintings, how classicism makes its case."
Yet it was a pie in the face to the establishment, delivered by the James Dean of his day. David was not prepared to knuckle under any longer to the rigid Royal Academy, which controlled France's artists in much the way we now train and control doctors. [...]
People like Thomas Jefferson took an interest in David and he became politicized, rejecting the academy further.
It asked him to undertake another painting, but in a breathtakingly defiant gesture, he did something else instead: The Death of Socrates.
"David has taken liberties here. Socrates had 15 students, but he has made it 12. Why? Because there were 12 apostles and this is a painting all about how you can be moral without having to be a Christian.
"In France, in which Christianity ruled absolutely everything, this is a painting that votes for Voltaire. It's a painting about respect for the law but the defiant integrity of the individual ... just exactly how David thought of himself."
Ironically, David would join the French revolution and become a virtual dictator of art, known as the "Robespierre of the brush."
A reader sent this along because it references the Rembrandt painting we mentioned below. But I was also struck by this unintentionally amusing bit. There is a profound lack of irony in the specter of the rationalist David, who began by trying to unseat the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and replace it with his personal sense of what is good, ending up helping to lead the Terror. The last couple centuries in the West are a standing testimony to the fact that it's a short trip from the "defiant integrity of the individual" to dictatorship and the guillotine. Posted by Orrin Judd at November 8, 2002 12:40 AM