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David had just returned to Paris after his sojourn in Rome when he submitted this painting to gain admission to the French Academy (which alone had the right to public exhibitions). The subject he chose belonged to the sentimental genre of which his age was so fond and thus like his Saint Roch can be considered a transitional work.
Belisarius, a general under Justinian, was one of the greatest military commanders of his time and the spearhead of Byzantium's attempts to rebuild the Roman Empire. His very successes, however, made him many enemies. Incriminated in a plot against Justinian, his eyes were put out on the Emperor's orders in 561 A.D. According to the historian Procopius, Belisarius, stripped of all his possessions, was reduced to begging in the streets of Byzantium..
In this painting, Belisarius is begging for alms at the foot of a monument redolent of military triumph. The structure opens out onto a classical landscape dotted with tiny figures and shrubs, which forms a painting within the painting- evoking Poussin's landscapes of the Roman countryside, but in a more geometric and architectural way..
It was on the basis of this painting that David was unanimously "approved" by the Academy in 1781. Belisarius was an immediate success, although some criticized its somberness. Diderot wrote: "This young artist shows the grand manner in the way he has carried out his work; he has soul, his heads have expression without affectation, his attitudes are noble and natural, he draws, he knows how to cast a drapery and paint beautiful folds. His color is beautiful without being brilliant."