Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David

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Spring 2022 has been an extraordinary season for French art in the United States. At the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the “Poussin and the Dance” exhibition looked at the pictorial choreography of Baroque master Nicolas Poussin and featured several paintings executed in Rome in the 1630s. Meanwhile, at the Metropolitan Museum of New York art, “Radical Draftsman” studied the practice of drawing in the long and turbulent career of Jacques-Louis David during the time of the French Revolution.

Spanning two centuries, the works of art on display here come from public and private collections around the world and trace the evolution of French painting at two crucial moments in its history. The works of these two artists testify to the enduring legacy of ancient Greece and Rome in driving the stylistic innovations of the modern era.

Self-Portrait, 1650, by Nicolas Poussin. Oil on canvas; 30.7 inches by 37 inches. The Louvre museum. (Public domain)

Poussin’s Rome was the main European center of learning for antiquarians. Arriving in the Eternal City in 1624, he found there a living culture which succeeded the artistic flourishing of the Renaissance. As powerful patrons and erudite scholars amassed impressive collections of Roman art, they also commissioned new works in the spirit of the ancient. Thus Poussin, working in this medium, developed a figurative style powerfully animated by the study of ancient sculpture. Its arrangement of figures in a horizontal grouping evokes the format of the Roman sarcophagus, whose marble surfaces were often decorated with a sculptural frieze in high relief, that is, a long stretch of deeply carved bodies.

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Marble relief of the “Borghese Dancers”, carved in the 2nd century in Rome. Louvre Museum. (Public domain)

And among the many antiquities exhibited in the papal city, the “Borghese Dancers” particularly inspired the French artist. It was carved in the 2nd century and in the 17th century it hung in the Villa Borghese above the door to the great gallery. Clasping their hands, the five dancers take off with a light step as a breeze presses the thin veil against their moving bodies.

Poussin carried this group of figures into several of his paintings, capturing the horizontal axis of the frieze in the movement of a circular dance. His piece “Dance to the Music of the Time” (c. 1634-1636) exemplifies this classic compositional formula, and the carefully modeled figures show a stylistic imitation of the sculptural high relief of marble. With line and paint, Poussin gave dancers a weightless grace and visible rhythm that rivaled even that of ancient dancers.

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“A dance to the music of the time”, circa 1634-1636, by Nicolas Poussin. Oil on canvas. The Wallace Gallery, London. (Public domain)

We do not find such a festive pleasure, on the other hand, in the austere historical paintings of Jacques-Louis David such as the famous “Oath of the Horatii” (1784) and “The Death of Socrates” (1787). By the century following Poussin’s death, the taste for French Baroque had gradually evolved into an elaborate, theatrical, and ornamental style in the visual arts, known as Rococo. Yet around the second half of the 18th century, aided by continued antiquarian studies and archaeological explorations, a new appreciation of ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics again spread throughout Europe. This found special manifestation in the works of David.

In his “Horaces”, David depicts a scene from a Roman legend, in which three brothers swear to fight for their country in single combat. As the men stand in an angular pose with stoic determination, their sister faints, as she is engaged to one of their enemies and must lose someone she loves. In composing the scene, David narrowly reduced the story to its most basic elements, arranging the groups of figures in a frieze against a solemn Roman archway.

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“Oath of the Horatii”, 1784-1785, by Jacques-Louis David. Oil on canvas. Louvre Museum, Paris. (Public domain)

Such a design recalls Poussin’s imitation of the Roman sarcophagus, but David’s laconic expression emphasizes the stark juxtaposition between male patriotism and female sentimentality. Here, the ancient civic heroism of the Horaces becomes a powerful symbol, which speaks of the turbulent political moment at the dawn of the French Revolution.

Then, three years later, with “The Death of Socrates,” David sought to convey an even stronger moral story: the Greek philosopher would rather die to maintain his faith in truth. Thus, Socrates sits upright on his deathbed, still giving impassioned lectures, as his hand reaches out for the poisonous hemlock. His followers gather in desolation – some listen intently, and others weep and mourn. Plato, in a gray robe seated on the left, lowers his head deeply lost in thought.

"The death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David around 1787.
“The Death of Socrates”, 1787, by Jacques-Louis David. Oil on canvas. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In this image, David has again evoked the ancient structure of the frieze and placed the figures in dramatic lighting to accentuate a sculptural severity. By assimilating this classic visual language, David managed to create a modern interpretation of an episode of ancient virtue, which resonated with the high intellectual ideals of the neoclassical movement..

Working over two centuries, the two great taste makers of the French school both drew their inspiration from distant Antiquity. Yet both brought ancient art to the present and crucially shaped the direction of modern painting. Therefore, the aesthetic influence of antiquity, combined with the incorporation of present-day culture, formed the powerful artistic tradition that we now classify as Classical Realism.

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