(b. 1770, Roma, d. 1837, Paris)
Oil on canvas, 91 x 74 cm
The story of Belisarius was that of a loyal and successful general in the service of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. He had won major victories against the Vandals, Goths and Bulgarians, but he then became implicated in political intrigues, was accused of treason and disgraced. He became an outcast and was even reduced to begging; one version of the story also said that his eyes were put out.
Belisarius was Gérard's first great success. Pressured by his friends to exhibit at the Salon of 1795, the artist chose as his subject one that his master David had painted fifteen years earlier, but in a very different mood. Painted in six weeks, the Belisarius met with critical acclaim and eclipsed the paintings of his contemporaries.
The present painting is a smaller version, produced in 1797 in response to the criticism of commentators on the 1795 Salon. While Belisarius was typically depicted in the act of begging, Gérard shows him standing and erect, his muscular form in sharp contrast to his guide's weakening body. The prominent helmet hanging from Belisarius's belt emphasizes the general's heroic past and underscores the injustice of his fall from favour.