DAVID, Jacques-Louis
(b. 1748, Paris, d. 1825, Bruxelles)

Belisarius Receiving Alms

Oil on canvas, 288 x 312 cm
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille

After the successful St Roch, David chose a subject from ancient history. 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.

The painting shows a scene - Belisarius is recognized by one of the soldiers who served under him just as he receives alms from a woman - which is David's own invention, not having occurred in any of the written sources. This painting was the first fully resolved example of the new heroic and austere style that is now known as Neoclassicism. it is a picture with a serious subject that is painted in a sober and rational style. Few characters, set as if on a stage, exchange meaningful and easily understood gestures. Belisarius is a painting about charity, sympathy, dutiful patriotism and the reversal of fortune. Announcing the old man desperate situation, and appealing to the spectator's charitable sensibilities, the Latin inscription 'Date Obulum Belisario' (Give an obulus - an ancient Greek silver coin - to Belisarius) is displayed on the marker stone in the bottom right-hand corner.

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