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The Revolution Inside the Morgan

Surely one of the timeliest art exhibitions currently on display in New York must be David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre at the Morgan Library & Museum. Given the general state of occupation, just how did the likes of artists Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Théodore Géricault manage to sneak in so close to the private library of powerful Wall Street investment banker John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913)? Well, we can thank the Louvre for the current occupation of eighty excellent drawings by these revolutionary artists, a reciprocal gesture for the Morgan loaning the Louvre a hundred fine drawings during the 1990s.

Beyond the storming of the Bastille, the French Revolution unleashed a creative fervor in France, one that rippled through the nineteenth century. Even before the first wave of revolutionary engagement, artists were sweeping away the wretched excess of the royal Rococo in favor of classical models in order to illustrate the useful parallel lessons from Imperial Rome. The orderly structure of reason then gave way to the Romantic's fondness for feelings, emotion, and subjectivity. The revolution may have begun in an orderly assembly, but in time, after the collective exhaustion following civic unrest, imperial power, and a reconstituted monarchy, individuals occasionally drifted off to find themselves in Nature. This story is apparent in the sequence of drawings in the exhibition, from the French Revolution of 1789 through the reign of King Louis-Philippe and the establishment of the Second Empire in 1852. 


Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the first artist represented in the Morgan exhibition, put himself in the thick of revolution. The Rome-trained artist painted the Oath of the Horatii, his famous painting depicting a band of Roman brothers declaring their fierce patriotic public duty, in 1784, a precursor to the Tennis Court Oath of June 17, 1789. David was on hand to make a sketch of the event, and he himself joined the National Assembly, becoming a member of the Jacobin Club and a friend to Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat. Upon Marat's murder, David not only painted the extraordinary image of the martyred Marat in his bathtub (La mort de Marat, 1793), he also took charge of Marat's public funeral. As impresario for The Terror, Marat choreographed a festival extolling a new civic faith, a cult of the Supreme Being.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines, graphite, retouching in pen and black ink, gray wash, heightened with white, on two joined sheets of beige paper. Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Thierry Le Mage

The Morgan exhibit picks up the story after Robespierre has been taken to the guillotine. David is now imprisoned in the Luxembourg Palace. The first image is David's careful profile drawing of a fellow prisoner, a middle-aged man in the clothes of the haute bourgeoisie. Before being sprung from jail, David conceived of a new painting depicting the hope of reconciliation, The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight between the Romans and the Sabines (1799). The exhibit features David's compositional studies for the work, a brilliant depiction of a woman asserting peace in the midst of tumult. The painting drew the admiration of Napoleon, giving the artist a convenient segue into the next phase of Revolutionary France. With the later restoration of the monarchy, David took his leave and lived in self-exile in Brussels.

The Morgan exhibit includes representative drawings by many others who would follow David as influential artists of their time - among them, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Théodore Géricault, Camille Corot, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Honoré Daumier. Several are preparatory drawings for now famous paintings. A highlight is a black and white chalk portrait by Prud'hon, one of Empress Josephine's favorite artists, of his lover and artist Constance Meyer. Their story would have a sad ending, but this drawing of her, caught in carefree smiling moment as she glances over her shoulder, gives a human face to life in often overwhelming times.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823), Portrait of Constance Mayer, black and white chalk, with stumping on blue paper, darkened to brown. Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY Photo: Jean-Gilles Berizz


What time are we in? In this twilight of ancien regimes and new awakenings, a time requiring our extreme focus on important civic matters, we must be at some kind of a beginning. Or maybe this is just the beginning of the end, once again.

David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street) through December 31, 2011. Museum website.

In related cultural news, the Royal Shakespeare Company is currently staging a new production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade (1963) at their home theater in Stratford-upon-Avon. The play - and the play within a play - dramatizes philosophical differences on notions of the individual and the state, personified in the theatrical representations of Jean-Paul Marat and the Marquis de Sade. See the RSC website for more information.

Read about the restoration of the Morgan Library's McKim Building at the post, Mr. Morgan's Library.





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