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

The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons

Oil on canvas, 323 x 422 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

This painting was exhibited at the salon of 1789, its full title was J Brutus, First Consul, returned to his house after having condemned his two sons who had allied themselves with the Tarquins and conspired against Roman liberty the lictors return their bodies so that they may be given burial.

In this painting David also deals with the subject of death in service of the state. This was an inflammatory subject in 1789, speaking out for self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of one's own flesh and blood for a higher ideal.

Lucius Junius Brutus (not to be confused with Julius Caesar's assassin Marcus Brutus, who lived some 500 years later), had helped to rid Rome of the last of its kings, the tyrannical Tarquin the Proud. This came about because Tarquin's son Sextus had raped the virtuous Lucretia. She then committed suicide in the presence of both her husband Collatinus and Brutus, who withdraw the knife from the fatal wound and swore on Lucretia's blood to avenge her death and destroy the corrupt monarchy. Tarquin was exiled and the first Roman republic was established in 508 BC, with Brutus and Collatinus elected as co-consuls. As the picture title tells us, Brutus' two sons, Titus and Tiberius, were drawn into a royalist conspiracy to return Tarquin, and their father condemned them to death.

For the grim and terrible event depicted in the painting, David adopted a radical compositional format. The main character, Brutus, is placed at the extreme left, plunged into deep shadow. His body is tense and knotted as he broods over the consequences of his act, he grasps the death warrant and clenches his feet one across the other. This last detail, in addition to the position of his arms, was probably taken from the figure of the prophet Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo. For the sake of accuracy David based the features of Brutus on a famous antique bust, the so-called Capitoline Brutus, of which he owned a copy. On the other side of the image the inconsolable women are brightly illuminated. The centre of the picture is taken up by a still-life of a sewing basket, an emblem of domesticity, which is rendered in stark clarity.

David skillfully illuminated the grief and allegorised the suffering, fear and pain of his figures. He shows the mother, accusing and suffering, her daughter beside her, hands raised defensively, and finally the younger daughter sunk down in pain at her impotence. Another figure at the right edge of the painting personifies grief. In the shadow sits the "hero" with the dark mien of a thinker. His features are stoic and harsh, his left hand is holding the written accusation in a claw-like grip, and he is seated in the shadow of the Roma, the symbol of the state to which the sacrifice is ultimately being made. Behind him, the son whose life has fallen victim to the requirements of the state is being borne in. A column strictly divides the theatrical arrangement into the representation of the dark force of destiny and the obvious emotional effect of the event.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.