Jacques-Louis David:

Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.

    • Oil on Canvas, 9'5" x 10' 2"
    • 1781
    • Musée des Beaux-Arts at Lille.

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..

This is a strong and sober work, centered around four expressive figures. The woman is restraining her emotion; the faces of the child and the old man are admirably disposed in a contrapuntal and harmonious relationship. Beyond them, dumbstruck as he recognizes his former general in this beggar, a soldier throws up his arms. He stands there as erect as the colonnade, a ghost from the past. The theme is surely the awsome power of tyranny, but in typical neo-classical form, the faces are very noble--those of the woman, the child, and the old man are particularly beautiful--and personify different spiritual aspects of grandeur. The woman embodies delicacy, solicitude, and pity. The face of Belisarius exposes his suffering, which has been exacerbated by humiliation. Hennequin, David's young pupil, posed for the child's face, which is a cry of youth and entreaty..

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."

 Return to Art and History Page

 Return to David Page

 Next David