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

Jacobus Blauw

Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm
National Gallery, London

Jacques-Louis David distinguished himself in France both as a painter and as a political figure, actively participating in the Revolution and later becoming Napoleon's court artist. After Napoleon's fall David went into exile in Brussels where he died.

Although David made his name with large heroic narrative pictures on themes from antiquity, some of his finest works are portraits of contemporaries, in which he combines lifelike realism with the severe compositions, controlled colour range and unostentatious brushwork of the Neo-classical style. Jacobus Blauw is an especially fine example, and interestingly combines the painter's political and artistic concerns. The sitter was a leading Dutch patriot who, in 1795 or, as David dates the painting, year 4 of the French Revolutionary Calendar helped to establish the Batavian Republic. When the French army invaded the Netherlands later that year Blauw, along with his countryman Caspar Meyer, was sent to Paris to negotiate a peace settlement. It was then that they commissioned David to paint their portraits (the one of Meyer is in the Louvre). It is clear, however, that of the two it was Blauw whom David found more sympathetic.

Blauw is shown seated writing an official document, a device which enables the artist to organise the composition with strict geometry, predominantly horizontal and vertical lines meeting at a right angle and echoing the shape of the canvas. (Or one can think of the sitter as forming a pyramid above the desk.) The fiction that Blauw has just turned from his work to pause for thought provides the motive for presenting him in full-face view. David softens the discomfort felt in such direct confrontation, however, by placing the head off-centre and by leaving the eyes unfocused. The pose combines great stability with a sense of momentary action, and seems to give us an insight into Blauw's character. He is shown in simple dress befitting a republican: a plain coat, a soft cravat, his own hair powdered, instead of an aristocrat's wig. A wonderful touch enlivens his brass buttons: gleams of red, implying unexplained reflections from the artist's studio, the viewer's space.

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