David and Brutus

The gifts of a great artist can be used to further political ends. Jacques-Louis David, painter of the French revolutionary era, created several wonderful paintings that were fraught with political and social meaning, but are still notable on a purely artistic level.

One such painting tells a remarkable story. Called Brutus, or Lictors Returning the to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, it is officially titled more grandly as “J. Brutus, first consul, has returned to his home after having condemned his two sons, who had joined the Tarquins and conspired against Roman liberty; lictors bring back the bodies so that they may be given burial.” David painted this during the first year of the French Revolution. King Louis XVI was beset with turmoil and there was a powerful political current to depose him. It was during this tumultuous time that David decided to illustrate an episode from Roman history.

Tarquin the Proud had been the King of Rome, and according to legend he was an abusive and vile tyrant. The noble minded Lucius Junius Brutus led the movement to overthrow the king, forcing Tarquin to flee. However, to the dismay of Brutus, his own sons conspired to return the king to power. Seeing where his greater duty lay, Brutus, as Consul, ordered the execution of his own sons.

David brilliantly laid out the whole story on a single canvas. In a scene divided by columns and curtains, the viewer sees Brutus with face shaded, pain across his brow, while behind him the bodies of his sons are carried into his home on a stretcher. Meanwhile, across the room, his wife, the grief-stricken mother of the executed sons, reaches towards the stretcher but is restrained by the other females of the house. The leading stretcher bearer views the wife with sympathy. The lighting is stark, and the poses of all figures suggest ancient vases or statuary.

The powerful image was immediately understood for the political implications. France and its citizens would have to remove a monarch and suffer through the pain of national or familial division to eliminate the royalist supporters, no matter the cost and no matter the tears. Duty must be done.

David commented that the key to the painting was feeling and composition, according to Robert L. Herbert’s book, David, Voltaire, Brutus and the French Revolution. He had masterfully combined intellectualism, sentiment, design and color into one painting and thereby raised a political commentary to the heights of artistic expression.  ~ Carl K.

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