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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

Additional Resources

Bordes, Philippe. Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Crow, Thomas. Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary France. New edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Eisenman, Stephen, ed. Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History, 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Irwin, David. Neoclassicism. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Lee, Simon. David. London: Phaidon, 1999.

Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons

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

In eighteenth-century France, a hierarchy existed among genres of painting.

An ambitious artist who aspired to fame and true greatness took up those subjects ranked as the most noble, namely those related to religion, mythology, and history, all of which fell under the label of “history painting.” When Jacques-Louis David began his artistic career, heroic scenes with complex compositions and minute detail characterized history paintings by masters of the French Academy. In the years before the turn of the century, however, David would play a major role in changing that.

Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons demonstrates some of the key aspects of Neoclassicism, the new painting aesthetic David introduced to the French Salon. The artist pares down his scene to its essential elements, adopts clear geometry of form and linear contours. His relief-like composition stresses the picture plane. David has not adopted classical forms wholesale here, but rather has borrowed certain aspects that best serve his purpose. Similarly, although he takes his subject matter from Rome’s ancient past, he invents the actual moment depicted for which there is neither documentary nor literary evidence.

The scene David shows takes place in the aftermath of the execution of the sons of Lucius Junius Brutus, the supposed founder of the Roman Republic. Brutus’s sons had engaged in a plot to restore the overthrown monarchy, an action punishable by death according to the laws of the new republic. In ordering the execution of his own sons, Brutus chose the preservation of the republic over the preservation of his family. The ambiguity of Brutus’s position is evident in his depiction. He sits enveloped in shadow with his face, stern and unexpressive, turned toward viewers. The fragmentation of the family unit is also expressed pictorially. At the center of the work—where normally the protagonist of the history painting would be depicted—there is a gap representing the gulf dividing Brutus from his wife and female children. In contrast to Brutus’s stoicism, the female members of the family are frozen in gestures of shock and dismay; a nursemaid hides her head in lament.

Begun in 1787 and displayed in the Salon of 1789, Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons was a revolutionary painting done on the eve of the French Revolution. By the time the work was displayed, in fact, the fall of the Bastille had already taken place. In this context, many scholars have interpreted David’s painting, with its theme of sacrifice for the sake of the republic, as a commentary, whether intentional or not, on current events. David’s own political position shifted a number of times over the years. A member of the National Convention that voted to execute Louis XVI in 1792, he spent several years creating images in support of the Revolution before later becoming Napoleon’s leading artist.

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