David's Self Portrait

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Jacques-Louis David, Self Portrait, 1794

At 46-years-old, it seemed that Jacques-Louis David’s life had come to a halt. His career as the artistic face of the French Revolution was dismantled along with the Reign of Terror. His friend and partner-in-crime, Robespierre, had been executed. And now David found himself in jail waiting for his own execution day. With no one to step up and save the most controversial and politically-influential painter in France, David took measures into his own hands.

He painted his Self-Portrait from jail in 1794. The painting is of himself, yes, but not the 46-year-old political-painter-turned-convict version of himself. He painted a younger David, hair romantically tousled, clothes charmingly disheveled, and an expression that could only hint at the future that modern David would suffer. He is clutching a palette and brush, as if to say, “Who, me? I’m just a humble painter.” But his eyes tell a different story. His gaze falls just below the viewers, as if he can’t bring himself to look the people of Paris in the eyes. His expression is passionate, yet tormented. David was not trying to take back what he had done. No, he believed what he had painted throughout the Reign of Terror was justified. The people of Paris had needed him. He made the Revolution accessible to the masses. Horatii, Brutus, Marat – they were not mistakes. But in painting them, David had let himself be viewed as just a symbol, an image for the Revolution. As the Reign of Terror fell, so did David. His famous paintings that had captivated and engaged the French people had become his downfall. Now he painted himself.

It was a last resort, a meager attempt to save his life. Or, maybe it was a cunning scheme to win the people of Paris once again. He was expert at it by now, always being acutely aware of what makes people tick. He understood how to manipulate people through his art. He had been making people see his way for years, from Brutus and the Lictors to Marat, and now this. Even with his tainted reputation, David still had enough credibility to attempt to pull this off. And he wasn’t about to go down without a fight.

So did it work? I mean, really?

Of course it did.

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