Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons
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.
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.”
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.