Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces

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Jacques-Louis David, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces, 1824 

Take the David who painted Marat and leave him at the door. Enter with the older, sicker, and exiled version. Now we may begin. Feeling his impending death David, at 75, decides to depart the art world. With the notion of creating a final masterpiece or as we know Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces. The piece captures a conflicted David. His struggles between his well-known neoclassicism and the new wave of romanticism. This final piece represents more than an artist saying farewell but, a man reflecting on his life. His failures. His successes. His regrets.

To fully understand his final work we must first understand how he wanted us to see it. Transport yourself to a room filled with floor length green drapes. On one wall hangs “the masterpiece” and on the other hangs a mirror. Now stand in the center of the room. Get caught between the reflection of the painting and the true image. Let the dark clouds hovering above and below you consume the space. Embrace the tension as our dear Venus hesitates to crown Mars.

Look at the Graces. David paints them an almost with mannish quality, their faces and bodies not reflecting the absolute perfection usually attributed to them. Look at Cupid who instead of aiming his lustful arrows spends his time revering Mars’ sandal. With our previous knowledge of David we know he makes calculated decisions. Altering evidence in his interpretation of Death of Marat. So what does David want to say here?

In his final work David reminds his audience of the most important value summed up perfectly by Diderot in Encyclopedia, “All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.” His final gift for the world takes us back to his roots of neoclassicism but with the hesitation of Venus, a distracted Cupid, and comical Graces he in essence destroys the perfection of neoclassicism. Leading him to a final revelation. Perfection does not exist.

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