The Lictors Bring Brutus the Bodies of his Sons

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Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Bring Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, 1789

Few paintings embody so well the worldview of their creator.

The story of Brutus and his sons ends poorly. Brutus famously overthrew the original monarch of Rome, deposing the seventh king of the city and ushering in 500 years of industrious republican government. Brutus became the first consul of Rome and saw about overseeing the transition to a republic. However, even as he worked to strengthen the republic, trouble brewed right under his nose. The recently deposed king’s family, none too happy at their current predicament, immediately began a plot to retake the city and reinstitute a monarchy. They even managed to sweet-talk Brutus’s sons into joining their coup. It failed—one of the intended conspirators turned out to be on the republic’s side—and punishments had to be doled out. Brutus’s job looked unfriendly. The consulate, with Brutus’s approval, sentenced his sons to death. He then attended the execution, which was carried out barbarically so as to deter future conspirators (it didn’t work—another attempt at restoring the throne occurred the very same year). This brings us to the scene that David elected to paint. Brutus sits stoically in the foreground, his curled toes the only sign of the immense pain he must have felt.

A couple of important compositional traits allow David’s sentiments to shine through. Two different worlds exist, divided by the columns. On the left lie the sons and Brutus. Brutus is the image of masculinity; even the death of his sons cannot move him to show emotion. On the other side of the painting, bathed in light, Brutus’s wife and daughters mourn the loss of the sons. This parallels closely the composition of David’s Oath of the Horatii—he depicts strong, determined men cut off from their better halves.

Finally, this painting must be viewed in the context of its creation. Painted in 1789, a time when the king still held influence, the work is a not-so-subtle dig at the monarchy. Not only does the story of Brutus obviously paint the rapacious, treacherous Roman monarchy in a negative light, but the idea of making sacrifices for the revolution must have seemed a particularly salient idea as the pace of executions ramped up in revolutionary France.

David the painter could rarely divorce himself from David the politician, and this painting is of course no different. David’s concepts of masculinity, patriotism, and sacrifice ring loud and clear in this tribute to the first overthrow of a western monarchy.

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