(b. 1748, Paris, d. 1825, Bruxelles)
St Roch Asking the Virgin Mary to Heal Victims of the Plague1780
Oil on wood, 260 x 195 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille
David's first independent commission was for an altarpiece for the chapel of the Lazaret (or quarantine centre) in Marseille, France's major Mediterranean port, and a place that lived in continual fear of contagion brought by travellers from the East. The picture was to commemorate a miraculous episode from the 1720 outbreak of the disease in the city when the fourteenth-century saint, who had suffered from the plague himself, reappeared and came to the aid of the sick.
David had tried to combine a depiction of a miracle, a visionary Baroque subject constructed according to the traditional rules, with the new manner of representation, which was no longer appropriate for the traditional approach. His clear neoclassical colouring, the evidently measurable proportions of the bodies, and the overall metrical construction all reveal the painful inability to combine on one level the earthly and the heavenly, the real story of the plague and its victim, with the historically intangible figures of the salvation. The painting is beautiful, but the realistic depiction of the suffering figures is much more moving for the viewer than is the Madonna, who is concerned with the child and not the pleading figure. The real and present suffering looks credible, but the religious aspect is no longer convincing. Paintings like this documented the end of religious painting for a long time.