The Story in Paintings: David the Goliath

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Marat Assassinated (1793), oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) was a history painter and portraitist whose influence dominated painting in France in the early 1800s. His classical style and subjects helped art address more serious issues. He was politically involved in the French Revolution, and somehow managed to switch over to supporting Napoleon when he became Emperor.

His training began in earnest when attended what was then the Royal Academy in the Louvre; from there he made three unsuccessful attempts at the Prix de Rome (the prestigious award for history painting), finally winning on his fourth attempt in 1774.

Antiochus and Stratonica (1774)

According to Plutarch’s Lives, Antiochus was the son of King Seleucus I of Syria. When Seleucus was relatively old, he married the young and beautiful Stratonice (or Stratonica). Antiochus fell mysteriously ill, and was confined to his bed as a result. The eminent anatomist and physician Erasistratus was summoned to assess the young man, and recognised that he had fallen in love with Stratonice, his stepmother.

King Seleucus I realised that the only solution was to divorce Stratonice in 294 BCE so that she could marry Antiochus, and he made his son the King of the eastern provinces to support him in the future. Seleucus was assassinated in 281 BCE, and Antiochus then succeeded him as King of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Antiochus and Stratonica (1774), oil on canvas, 120 x 155 cm, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

David’s painting which won the Prix de Rome shows Antiochus propped up in bed, Erasistratus (in a red cloak) by him and pointing to the beautiful Stratonice at the foot of the bed. Little is shown in facial expressions, apart from Stratonice’s bashful expression with her eyes cast down. Body language and composition combine to tell the story, with Erasistratus’ pointing index finger helping to put Stratonice metaphorically and literally in the spotlight.

That may appear a strange and obscure subject for David’s first major history painting, but it was prescribed by the judges for the Prix de Rome, and not of his choosing.

The Oath of the Horatii (copy) (1786, original 1784-5)

In Roman legend, one of the crises which nearly brought about the early destruction of Rome was a conflict with the city of Alba Longa. Rather than killing most of one another’s young males in conventional war, the two cities agreed that this would be fought out by just three men chosen from each city. Three brothers from one Roman family, the Horatii, agreed to fight three brothers from Alba Longa’s Curiatii family.

When they met in combat, two of the three Horatii were killed, leaving just one brother, who chased the three Curiatii, separated them, and then killed each in turn. This gave victory to Rome, as described by Livy and Dionysius.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Oath of the Horatii (copy) (1786, original 1784-5), oil on canvas, 130.2 x 166.7 cm (original 329.8 x 424.8 cm), Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH (original Musée du Louvre). Wikimedia Commons.

Able now to choose his own subject and the moment in the story for depiction, David opts for the three Horatii brothers saluting their father, and taking their swords immediately before combat. Behind the father are three women, of whom the young woman at the far right is Camilla, sister to the Horatii and betrothed to one of the Curiatii, who thus knows that she will lose someone dear to her no matter what the outcome.

Although not a moment of peripeteia as such, this is a decisive and dramatic instant, and David’s composition and use of body language adds considerable power to its narrative.

The painting shown here is actually a smaller copy made by David of the original; the latter is in the Louvre, and was painted only a few years before the start of the French Revolution. It was commissioned for King Louis XVI, as an allegory about loyalty to the state and the monarch, which David interpreted as a message about the nobility of patriotic sacrifice. However he also cunningly managed to leave the viewer to decide where that loyal patriotism should be directed.

The Death of Socrates (1787)

Socrates (470/469-399 BCE) was a major Greek philosopher known still for the Socratic Method, although none of his writings have survived. At the time when Athens was trying to recover from its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Socrates was openly critical of Athenian politics and society, and made prominent Athenians appear foolish. He was tried, ostensibly for corrupting the minds of the young and for being impious, found guilty, and sentenced to death by drinking the poison hemlock.

Plato’s Phaedo describes Socrates’ execution. Although several encouraged him to escape, he refused. After drinking the hemlock from a bowl, he was told to walk around until his legs became numb. He then lay down, and the numbness slowly ascended until it reached his heart, and caused his death.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Death of Socrates (1787), oil on canvas, 129.5 x 196.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

For this painting, David shows a form of peripeteia based on Plato’s account. Socrates is half-sitting on a bed, his right hand over the bowl of hemlock, his left gesticulating with his index finger pointing upwards. His face is expressionless. By the head of the bed, five friends are distraught at what is happening, although only one shows grief on his face. Another friend (Crito) sits by Socrates, his right hand resting on Socrates’ left thigh.

The bowl of hemlock is held out by a young man, who is turned away, averting and shielding his eyes from the bowl. At the foot of the bed, an old man (Plato, who told the story) is sat, asleep, but behind him, under an arch, another of Socrates’ friends (Apollodorus) is pressing his face to the wall in his anguish. In the far distance, a small group of patricians are seen walking away, upstairs, the lowermost holding his right hand up as if to bid Socrates farewell.

Again, facial expressions play a limited role, with body language and composition the main tools for telling the story.

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789)

After the rape of Lucretia, the King, Tarquinius Superbus, was deposed and Brutus and Lucretia’s widower were elected the first consuls of Rome (509 BCE). The Tarquinian royal family then lead some of the citizens of Rome in the Tarquinian Conspiracy, an attempt to overthrow the consuls and restore power to the royal family. Among the conspirators were two brothers of Brutus’ wife, and his two sons.

When the conspiracy was discovered, Brutus and the other consul had the conspirators executed in front of them, although Brutus is reported to have shown understandable emotion when they were killed. Once they had been executed, the headless corpses were returned to their families.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789), oil on canvas, 323 × 422 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

David was completing this painting at the start of the French Revolution, which turned out to be a very appropriate moment for the work. In the background at the left, the lictors (bearers) are bringing the two bodies in, Brutus sat in front, turned away and looking towards the viewer. To the right of centre, his wife – who has lost both her sons and two brothers – is very anxious and disturbed, holding her right hand out in a welcoming gesture, and embracing her two young daughters to her bosom. On a table covered with a blood-red cloth by her is a set of Roman scissors, as a symbol of the execution.

With little facial expression (from only Brutus’ wife and one daughter), David uses body language and composition to good effect, and is careful to hint at the corpses with subtlety rather than show then in full gore.

When it was rumoured in the press that the monarchy intended to prevent this painting from being shown in the 1789 Salon, there was uproar, and it was permitted. It was quickly seen as showing the values required of the French people in supporting the revolution, even if they had to see members of their own family die in the process.

From the early days, David was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, and a friend of Robespierre himself. David became involved in the production of propaganda, and organised ceremonial funerals for those who were denied rites by the church as a result of their involvement in the Revolution.

Marat Assassinated (1793)

Jean-Paul Marat was a leading member of the Revolutionary movement, an influential journalist through his newspaper, and a friend of David’s. Because of a severe skin disease, he spent much of the time in a bath to ease the intense itching. On the morning of 13 July 1793, Charlotte Corday, a young woman from Normandy, turned up at Marat’s house in Paris, asking to see him; his wife turned her away. She gained entry that evening, and started to give Marat the names of some local counter-revolutionaries. While he was writing them down, she drew a kitchen knife with a 15 cm blade from her clothing, and plunged it into Marat’s chest, killing him very quickly.

Corday admitted if not boasted of her actions, and on 17 July she was executed in public by guillotine. Marat became a martyr for the cause, after his friend David had organised another spectacular funeral.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Marat Assassinated (1793), oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

David shows Marat’s body slumped over the side of his bath, the murder weapon and his quill both on the floor, the pen still in his right hand, and a handwritten note in his left hand.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Marat Assassinated (detail, rotated) (1793), oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

Corday’s note, shown rotated from its orientation in the painting, gives the date, and addresses itself from her to Citizen Marat. It opens with “It suffices to say that I am very unhappy to qualify for your kindness”.

This sparse and simple painting became the quintessential image of The Terror in particular, and the Revolution as a whole.

David narrowly escaped being executed along with Robespierre when the Revolution collapsed. He was arrested and imprisoned for several months in late 1794 and the middle of 1795. His wife visited him there, and helped him cope.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799)

I have mentioned the rape of the Sabine women in the early history of Rome in other articles. David decided to present the story with a different emphasis: the role of those women in trying to bring peace.

Some time after the Romans stole their women for wives, to address their own shortage of women, the Sabines attacked Rome to avenge the abductions. Hersilia, the daughter of Tatius, leader of the Sabines, was taken as a bride by Romulus, the leader of Rome, and by this time had had two children by him.

With the Sabines and Romans engaging in battle, Hersilia led the Sabine women, with their children, to put themselves between the two armies, to stop the fighting and force the two sides to make peace.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), oil on canvas, 385 x 522 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

David shows, in the foreground, Hersilia standing, arms stretched out towards her father Tatius and her enforced husband Romulus. Around her, and separating the two armies, are other Sabine women with babies and young children, deliberately putting themselves and those infants into danger in order to stop the battle. Behind them is an anachronistic fortress, with many spears pointing into the air to indicate the size of the armies involved.

This painting was seen as a plea for the French people to reunite after the slaughter and the division brought by the Revolution, and helped David’s rehabilitation. He met Napoleon, and made his first sketch of him in 1797, two years before Napoleon became First Consul.

The Anger of Achilles (1819)

In Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis, retold in Racine’s French version, the King Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia is intended to be married to Achilles. However Agamemnon has greater issues to deal with: he wants his Greek fleet to be able to set sail for Troy, to attack and capture it. In order to achieve that, the goddess Diana must be appeased by the sacrifice of Iphigenia to her.

When Agamemnon tells the youthful Achilles of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, Achilles reaches for his sword in anger. Agamemnon stops him. Iphigenia understands the situation, and volunteers to be sacrificed. At the last minute, the gods whisk her away and replace her with a deer.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Anger of Achilles (1819), oil on canvas, 105.3 x 145 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Unusually for David’s history paintings, the figures are close-packed and fill the canvas. Achilles, at the left, reaches for his sword in an uncomfortable manoeuvre with his right arm. A rather masculine and tearful woman just to the right of him is Queen Clytemnestra, Iphigenia’s mother, and her right hand rests on Iphigenia’s shoulder. Iphigenia is dressed as a bride, and looks wistful, staring into the distance, her face empty of outward emotion. At the right, Agamemnon appears emotionless, but indicates firmly to Achilles for him to restrain his emotions.

In the circumstances, the facial expressions and body language are remarkably restrained if not cold – every upper lip is stiff, even Clytemnestra’s tears have been wiped away.

After Napoleon’s defeat and the collapse of his empire, David was put on the list of proscribed individuals, which is unsurprising given his role in the Revolution and as an ardent supporter of Napoleon. Although granted amnesty by Louis XVIII, David went into self-exile in Brussels, where he died after being struck by a carriage on 29 December 1825. Only his heart was allowed to return to France for burial.


David was a powerful story-teller, but his Neo-Classicism and perhaps his own nature stops short of writing much emotion into the faces of his characters. In most of his history paintings, his characters are spaced quite far apart, making them seem emotionally more detached. Even when he does bring his figures close together, they still appear relatively cold.