Saturday, 30 August 2014

Jacques-Louis David and the Last Journey of Marie Antoinette

Jacques-Louis David (Paris, France, 30th August 1748 - Brussels, Belgium 29th December 1825)

On this day in 1748, famed artist Jacques-Louis David was born. Initially renowned for his history paintings, David eventually began to develop strong Revolutionary sensibilities and became closely allied to Marat, producing a famed painting depicting his death. He later grew close to Robespierre and enjoyed immense influence over French arts and culture during the Revolution and then the rule of Napoleon. Although known for his grand works and portraits, I have chosen instead to concentrate on a more simple sketch he produced, that of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine.


Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine by Jacques-Louis David, 1793
Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine by Jacques-Louis David, 1793

When David sketched the doomed queen on 16th October 1793, she was a world away from the grand, glamorous figure memorialised in innumerable works of art. In her thirty seventh year, Marie Antoinette had been incarcerated for some time and David depicts her with an unflinching eye, showing an unremarkable woman, face haggard and toothless, hair shorn and her hands bound as she sits in the tumbrel on its way to the scaffold. One cannot help but notice how straight she sits, though the expression on her face is one of grim sadness.

In this simplest of sketches David shows not a queen, nor the hated figure so vilified by her persecutors, but a simple human in her final minutes. There was nothing remotely Royalist in David's work and yet his honest depiction carries with it a dignity of its own. He might have produced far finer works and laboured long hours over great canvasses but for me, this simple, human sketch is one of David's greatest works; it captures a singular moment in time and one that, as the tumbrel rolled on past the artist's window, was soon gone forever.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

10 comments:

  1. Thanks, I hadn't realised it was David's birthday. He was really a propagandist, wasn't he? There's something almost scary about that whole Neoclassical movement.

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    1. He was a very shrewd man and one who knew the value of self-promotion too. He seemed to have a second sense for which way the wind was blowing!

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  2. That is a chilling and poignant sketch. It's real.

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    1. It truly is, it captures such a dark moment.

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  3. Beautifully written, Catherine. Thank you.

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  4. The memoirs of another great self-publicist, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, working around the same time, are well worth a read...

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  5. tragic Marie Antoinette.... sorrow and courage both apparent in this sketch....

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    1. I think so too; it tells so many stories.

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