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3 / History and Memory

Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons
Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons
Artist / Origin Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748–1825)
Region: Europe
Date 1789
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 10 ft. 7 1/8 in. (3.23 m.), W: 13 ft. 10 1/8 in. (4.22 m.)
Location Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Credit Courtesy of Art Resource, NY/Photo by Erich Lessing

expert perspective

Thomas CrowProfessor of Modern Art, Institute of Fine Arts at NYU

Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons

» Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748–1825)

expert perspective

Thomas Crow Thomas Crow Professor of Modern Art, Institute of Fine Arts at NYU

Neoclassicism in terms of painting is most associated with the name Jacques-Louis David. In going back to the ancients, you are often looking for alternatives to the existing arrangements of society. You could get away with a lot of implicit criticism of authoritarian social relationships by celebrating and exploring the history of the Roman Republic and also the Greek city-states, which had often a kind of democracy. And because it was the ancients, everyone had to approve it was all okay. And as you did this, of course, it created a new kind of political science. And David was very attracted to this from a very early age, in part because he was a natural rebel. He chafed against the strictures of the academy, the whole system of training and subordination, prize-giving, pleasing your elders, all of that. And he really wanted to reinvent art on his own. And when he went to Rome the first time, as successful young students in the academy customarily did, he felt that this gave him a kind of cause. He was going to take what he observed and not filter it through the tradition, but bring it back in its pure and immediate state in the Brutus.

Rome at the beginning of the story is still a monarchy; it’s ruled by a corrupt dynasty called the Tarquins. And the last of the Tarquins is particularly heinous and authoritarian. And his son rapes the virtuous wife of an upstanding Roman citizen called Collatinus. His friend, Brutus, who is, in fact, himself a member of the royal family, reacts to this outrage by declaring that they will overthrow the Tarquins. But Brutus’s family, of course, is still part of this exiled monarchy. And they get drawn into a conspiracy to restore Tarquin as the king. Brutus discovers this. David shows him, shows Brutus, clutching the incriminating document in an absolutely poignant detail on the far left of the canvas. And because he has just instituted a law that such acts of treason are punishable by death, he has no choice but to order the execution of his own sons, which he witnesses in the story. But David doesn’t show that, he shows the aftermath, the grief of the household, the isolated clusters, male, female relatives, nursemaid. And the sons are being brought in, which is something that the ancient Romans never did, but it works for David’s dramatic purposes. And you barely see them, but what you see is the play of reaction across this group of afflicted relations. And the costs of patriotism are written through these figures.” 

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