Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 7, 2006
Philippe Bordes Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile Exh. cat. Williamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in association with Yale University Press, 2005. 400 pp.; 80 color ills.; 95 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300104472)
Exhibition schedule: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, February 1–April 24, 2005; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, June 5–September 5, 2005
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The later phases of Jacques-Louis David’s career have received far less attention than his earlier work during the Ancien Régime and Revolution. Art in general during Napoleon’s Consulate and Empire has, perhaps surprisingly, been comparatively neglected until recently. Philippe Bordes’s exhibition and catalogue are an extremely valuable contribution to the reassessment of David’s later career and to an understanding of art in France in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Bordes, a professor at the Université Lyon 2, was the founding director of the Musée de la Révolution française in Vizille and has published extensively on David and French art at the end of the eighteenth century.

It might be easy to overlook how unprecedented Bordes’s endeavors are: this is the first monographic exhibition in the United States of David’s work and the first sustained exploration of the artist’s work for Napoleon and of his subsequent exile in Brussels. As Bordes himself notes in his preface, fourteen of the twenty-seven paintings in the exhibition and catalogue and fourteen of the twenty-nine drawings were not included in the landmark David exhibition of 1989–90 at the Louvre and Versailles (Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825, Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989). He was able to include a number of long-unseen works, some of them only recently rediscovered, an accomplishment which he acknowledges was “significantly facilitated by the remarkable catalogue raisonné of David’s drawings” (xii) by Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat (Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825, Catalogue raisonné des dessins, 2 vols., Milan: Leonardo Arte, 2002). There are new letters and documents that Bordes puts to excellent use. But often it is his reconsideration of long-known ones that are the basis for some of his most intriguing proposals.

Throughout his texts Bordes is thorough and scrupulous in crediting the work of other authors and generous in assessing their contributions. He makes repeated and respectful reference to Antoine Schnapper’s monumental contribution to the 1989 exhibition catalogue, which laid out a groundwork of scrupulous documentation for David’s art and career, and to Rosenberg and Prat’s catalogue raisonné of the drawings, whatever his qualifications or disagreements with either. He reserves his most serious doubts for Dorothy Johnson’s numerous articles and books (“‘Some Works of Noble Note’: David’s La Colère d’Achille Revisited,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 104 [December 1984]: 223–30; “Desire Demythologized: David’s L’Amour Quittant Psyche,” Art History 9, no. 4 [December 1986]: 450–70; Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993; The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis, Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997) while acknowledging the importance of her writings and their pioneering status in the reappraisal of David’s later work.

The catalogue is handsomely designed with excellently placed comparative illustrations. It is abundantly illustrated in generally excellent color, not only of the exhibited works but also of a notable portion of the comparative materials. Unfortunately, too few details are reproduced. The catalogue is organized into a series of chapters, each followed by a group of related object entries. There are extensive notes, those to the chapters awkwardly located at the back of the book, and those to the entries much more conveniently placed at the end of each. The notes are a rich mine of references, information, and argumentative asides. There is an excellent bibliography and an index, something too often lacking in exhibition catalogues, but here fundamentally useful if somewhat limited in scope. But the most notable feature is that it is the work of a single author, something unusual in this day for so large and ambitious an exhibition catalogue. Bordes is thus able to develop a series of cohesive arguments and to make pertinent references back and forth between essays and entries.

The selection of exhibited works included two important historical portraits of Napoleon, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (1800–1; cat. no. 4) and Napoleon in His Study (1811–12; cat. no. 12), both canonical works; a wonderfully rich and varied group of painted and drawn portraits (many never or rarely exhibited or seen outside their home institutions); three of the four large historical compositions from the period of David’s Brussels exile; and numerous drawings, some for large (unexhibited) compositions, and ten others from among the uncanny compositions produced during his later years. There were inevitable, but nonetheless unfortunate, major lacunae for reasons of size, condition, and donor restrictions. And one might regret the absence of any of the full compositional drawings for The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1805–8) and The Distribution of the Eagles (1808–10), since those enormous canvases, along with Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), were instead represented in the exhibition by small color reproductions and floor-to-ceiling length color details at the actual scale of the paintings. The missing canvases weakened the section entitled “In Service to Napoleon,” but, as compensation, allowed the portraits of that period to receive the considerable attention they warranted. The exhibition, at the Clark where this reviewer saw it, was nicely installed to follow the organization of the catalogue. The notable exception was the introductory gallery on the ground floor where Bonaparte Crossing the Alps and Sappho, Phaon, and Cupid (1809; cat. no. 27) were hung together. This coupling formed a somewhat peculiar introduction—although also a telling one—in indicating the divergent courses David’s art took toward contemporary history and portraiture and toward historical compositions and the search for expression. But most importantly, both canvases were too tall to fit comfortably into the main exhibition galleries.

The installation was, for the most part, flattering to the works, with only a few of the larger canvases appearing somewhat constricted by the ceiling heights and short walls. But the hanging allowed a closer view of some works, like Napoleon in His Study and Comtesse Daru (1810; cat. no. 18), normally hung higher in their home institutions. And it facilitated comparisons by the manageable size and compact layout of the exhibition. The grouping of the three Brussels history paintings and the two rooms of portraits were especially rewarding for this kind of comparative viewing, the latter particularly varied in size, format, handling, finish, color, and presentation—ranging from sober to sumptuous.

In the catalogue’s first chapter, “Art after Politics,” Bordes begins with the period 1794–99, from Thermidor through the Directory to Napoleon’s ascension to power. As throughout his text, he subtly weaves together David’s personal history, the artistic environment, the challenges younger artists (many his own former pupils) posed, the social milieu, and the political situation. Bordes here sets the stage not only for the artist’s subsequent service to Napoleon, but also for developments in his portrait practice and in his later compositions from ancient history.

The longest chapter, “In the Service of Napoleon,” traces David’s relationship with Napoleon from its debut in 1796 to the end of the Empire in 1815. Throughout, Bordes depicts David as the willing, even eager, collaborator with Napoleon, his regime, and his imperial arts project. Bordes queries David’s motivations, asking why “the painter of Marat and the partisan of Robespierre . . . cast his lot with Napoleon Bonaparte” (19); he proposes by way of partial explanation “the parallel strategy of recovery and cover-up at the crux of the collaboration between David and Napoleon: the painter was forever attempting to put the crimes of the Terror behind him, while the military officer never ceased to erase the memory of the coup d’état that created an access to the imperial throne” (20). Bordes is sympathetic toward the artist’s efforts to advance his position and to serve a man to whom he was committed politically and artistically. He is unwilling to judge David for opportunism or cupidity—as has often happened in evaluations of David’s art—or for political expediency.

Bordes considers in depth most of David’s projects for and about Napoleon, devoting a long and thorough entry to what is arguably David’s most successful representation of “the great man,” depicting him crossing the Alps to victory at Marengo. He makes subtle and illuminating use of contemporary texts—including a little-known letter from the Spanish ambassador mocking David’s finished work and derisively comparing it to Velázquez—to draw out the qualities of the work and the pictorial and political issues at stake. He produces a richly detailed and persuasive reading of the power, meaning, and distinguishing modernity of the painting. (Bordes, quite uncharacteristically, overlooks the excellent catalogue by Jérémie Benoît for Marengo: Une victoire politique, Musée National du château de Malmaison, 2000.)

Rather than dismay at Napoleon’s imperial presumptions, Bordes proposes instead that David’s “residual republicanism, perhaps the apt characterization of his sentiments in 1804, and support of the empire were in no way incompatible” (39). Here and elsewhere, he is astutely sensitive to the dynamics of the imperial arts administration and David’s shifting and checkered relationship to it. He devotes considerable attention to what he terms “the coronation suite”—four immense paintings (only two of which were executed) of the coronation ceremonies of 1804. In his complex and finely nuanced account of The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, he addresses in some detail David’s decision to modify the ceremonial moment represented from Napoleon’s self-crowning to his crowning of Josephine. Bordes offers interesting evidence that the self-crowning was viewed quite positively in the period following the event and characterizes the modification as abandoning “the crucial and complementary relationship between sword and crown” (50).

On The Distribution of the Eagles, David’s next and last painting in the coronation suite, Bordes is cautiously critical of Johnson’s implausible reading of it as “seditious and politically subversive” (Jacques-Louis David, 1993, 208). He draws out instead the ways in which David here serviced the regime, painting “a celebration of the association of court culture and military ethos aimed for by Napoleon” (57). He is uncomfortable with “the improbable staging of The Eagles” (58), but one can wonder whether any artist of that moment would have found a convincing way to represent it. It is the kind of oath-swearing and ceremonial subject that easily defeated not only lesser artists like Pierre Gautherot and Jean-Baptiste Debret, but also accomplished talents like Girodet and Gros.

While acknowledging and documenting David’s numerous vexations and rebuffs from the imperial administration following the completion of The Eagles, Bordes is at pains to counter the conventional topos of David’s state of alienation during the remaining years of the Empire. He reviews in full the artist’s diverse official occupations as first painter to the Emperor, his intensive involvement with the major project to redecorate the Grand Cabinet of the Tuileries, his costume designs for the imperial court, and also, for a Scottish noble, his magnificent and impressively dignified portrait of Napoleon in his study authoring the Code Napoléon. If David found his experience at court frustrating and withdrew during the climate of military and political uncertainty of 1812–14, he did not hesitate to offer his oath of fidelity to Napoleon in 1815 by signing the acte additionnel during the Hundred Days and chose exile in Belgium after Waterloo. As Bordes argues repeatedly, whatever difficulties David experienced, they “were no cause for disillusionment with the regime: Napoleon gratified David continuously down to the Hundred Days . . . and the painter paid homage to the emperor until the end of his life” (35).

“Portraits of the Consulate and Empire” is in part a reprise of material Bordes previously presented in his Portraiture in Paris Around 1800: Cooper Penrose by Jacques-Louis David (Timken Art Museum, San Diego; 2003). He discusses David’s changing portrait practice over these years, his fees, his choice of clients, the tensions between artist and sitter, and the differences between public and private commissions. He attributes to David “an acute sense of social responsibility in capturing for posterity the image of his time” and a desire “to express a personal or social truth in his portraits,” but also a “will to conceive of his portraits as artistic statements . . . founded on a critical attitude toward past and contemporary formulas” (126). Bordes situates David’s practice, both socially and artistically, in relation to those of his younger rivals and former pupils Gérard, Isabey, Girodet, Ingres, and others. He also considers how David expanded or unmoored the notions of portraiture. Returning to Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, he cites the claim of David’s friend Aubin-Louis Millin in 1806 that it is not a portrait but a “tableau d’histoire,” a more elevated rubric that can usefully include the later Napoleon in His Study. However, as Bordes notes, David himself, according to his pupil and biographer Etienne-Jean Délécluze, categorized his Coronation and Eagles canvases along with Bonaparte Crossing the Alps as “tableaux-portraits,” a slippery hybrid, neither history (which he reserved for antique subjects) nor portrait.

Many of Bordes’s portrait entries provide a wealth of fascinating material about the sitter and the circumstances of the commission, nowhere more so than for Cooper Penrose (1802; cat. no. 14). He explores what he calls “the republican resonances” of David’s portrait of this Irish Quaker active in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. Bordes is attentive to how David used and modified the conventions and fashions of elite portraiture in ways that illuminate images as diverse as Suzanne Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (1804; cat. no. 15), the Comtesse Daru (unconvincingly squeezed by Bordes into a psychosexual reading of three-way circuits of desire), and Antoine Français de Nantes (1811; cat. no. 21).

The chapter “Antiquity Revisited” is in many respects central to Bordes’s project and is a significant contribution to the ongoing reappraisal and recuperation of David’s later historical compositions. Bordes situates David’s endeavor to forge “a modernized vision of antiquity” (193) in relation to the calls to rejuvenate the approach to Greek and Roman subjects and to the debates around Winckelmann’s conception of the beau idéal. David’s response was, in part, a renewed inclination toward exploring the limits of expression, an increased reliance on the model and on the use of jarring realism and shifts of pictorial modes, and a new feeling for Flemish color heightened by his residence in Belgium after 1816. Without resolving the apparent contradictions, Bordes argues both for the stimulus of aristocratic patronage in the artist’s abandonment of themes of civic inspiration and for viewing his work as enmeshed in the art and politics of the liberal opposition to the Bourbon restoration in France. Most of all, Bordes’s ambition is to propose “a positive explanation” of David’s later historical works and “to evaluate [each] composition on its own terms” (214) so as to counter the denigration to which they have conventionally been subjected.

The entries for this chapter are almost uniformly successful in drawing out a “positive interpretation” of these often vexing and rebarbative works. Bordes has perhaps the greatest difficulty with Sappho, Phaon, and Cupid, with its problematic perspectives, miscalculated foreshortenings, harsh color, luxurious furnishings, and glaring discord of expressions, poses, and actions among the three figures. By contrast, his discussion of Cupid and Psyche, both the drawing of 1813 (cat. no. 30) and the painting completed in 1817 (cat. no. 32), is a tour-de-force of interpretation. He recounts the myth and how it had been figured since antiquity, focusing on the challenges of recent representations by Canova, Gérard, and Prud’hon. Through a subtle and elegant presentation of selected documents—letters from Madame David, from David to his engraver Potrelle, from Gros, and published reviews and defenses—Bordes gradually builds a nuanced yet clear understanding of this work, one which this viewer has, until now, found frustratingly resistant to comprehension. He accords new importance to two articles of 1817 published by David’s friend Louis Frémiet, most plausibly with the strong involvement, if not actual authorship, of the artist himself. Frémiet/David justifies the painter’s unusual vision of the myth as “penetrated by the spirit of the ancients.” And he defends this representation of a credibly adolescent Cupid, the focus of much criticism and perplexity then and now, as “truly . . . the crudelis amor of the ancient poets” whose expression is a “composite of ingenuity, malice, and libertine joyousness,” naming the Greek idyllic poet Moschus in support (234).

“Late Drawings: Experiments in Expression” investigates the least explored aspect of David’s later years, works treated until recently as signs of his decline and even senility. Bordes credits the pioneering work of Arlette Sérullaz (in the 1989 Jacques-Louis David exhibition catalogue [547–57]) and the catalogue raisonné of Rosenberg and Prat with focusing attention on these odd and disquieting drawings. He might also have acknowledged Johnson’s sympathetic and insightful treatment in her 1993 book where she indicated a number of the lines of inquiry Bordes pursues here. Bordes sets apart about thirty sheets (ten of which were exhibited) out of about one hundred and thirty drawn by David during his last ten years. These independent works depict bust-length figures in costume, without setting, and assembled without clear narrative intention in enigmatic but highly dramatic scenes. Bordes describes “the coarse draftsmanship, the ungainly canon of proportions, and the absence of gestural liaison” of these sheets as characteristic of David’s later manner (214). He embeds the exaggeration of expression tending toward grimace and melodrama and the “narrative indeterminacy” (273) within the pictorial practices and critical and theoretical debates of the time. Weaving together such topics as the publications of Lavater on physiognomy and Gall on phrenology, Guizot’s reflections on the Salon of 1810, the renewal of interest in the tête d’expression, David’s fascination with trecento and quattrocento painting, and his sympathy toward the liberal opposition in France, Bordes develops the fullest case yet for these perplexing yet fascinating works.

The last chapter, “Portraits in Exile,” examines a surprisingly large portion of the twelve portraits David painted between 1816 and 1824. Bordes notes how conventional they are in artistic terms, but aptly remarks: “The determinant influences . . . were not primarily artistic. There was above all the presence of the past, the years of Revolution and Empire mulled over unceasingly by the exiles, who waged solitary battles to quench their contradictory desire to remember, to rewrite, to praise, to regret, and to forget” (293). But if Bordes concludes that “the chains of exile do not appear to have weighed down on his portraits” (297), their sober presence in a small room in this exhibition vividly evokes for this viewer weariness, disengagement, and loss.

Bordes is at times too reticent to take a strong interpretive stance and too hesitant to offer something other than positive explanations of problematic aspects of David’s art and career. But any reservations are relatively inconsequential. Bordes’s publication is most certainly a remarkable achievement and will be a standard reference for the subject. His wide-ranging knowledge and the immense richness and density of his arguments significantly deepen our understanding of David’s work and of the artistic culture of the early nineteenth century.

Marc Gerstein
Professor of Art History, Department of Art, University of Toledo

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.