Jacques-Louis David:
The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons


Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.

    • Oil on Canvas, 10' 7" x 13' 10"
    • 1789
    • Musée du Louvre, Paris

In all his historical paintings done in the years immediately precedinge great revolution, David worked hard to introduce the themes of the triumph and role of reason. In the Oath of the Horatii, the father demands a committment from his sons. A few years later, in this picture, the demands are on the father, but both are in the name of reason.

The full title of this work is "Brutus Returning HOme after Having Sentenced His Sons for Plotting a Tarquinian Restoration and Conspiring against Roman Freedom; the Lictors Brint their Bodies to be Buried." Having led the fight which overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic, Brutus tragically saw his own sons participate in a plot to restore the monarchy. As a judge, he was called upon to render the verdict, and unhesitatingly condemned his own boys to death.

In 1789, for David to bring up such a subject was hotly controversial, and reveals how deeply committed the artist was to the new ideas and enlightement principals. Indeed, had the revolution not occurred, this picture would doubtlessly could never have been exhibitied publicly. But in the exciting days following the fall of the bastille, David's picture was seen as a republican manifesto, and greatly raised David's reputation.

The picture's influence was immedialy felt in other ways, including taste, fashion and even morals. "After it was exhibited," one commentator noted, "fashion returned to hair without p[owder and women adoptlked loose hair styles, soon to be followed by men.... Corsets were banished, as were high-heeled shoes and women got into the habit of replacing so-called court dresses by light and simple clothes, which were more elegant than sumptuous."

Artistically, David achieved his effect through an uncompromising clarity and a subordination of color to drawing. This economy of statement were in keeping with the new severity of taste, while his themes gave expression to the new cult of the civic virtues of stoical self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, honesty, and austerity. Seldom have paintings so completely typified the sentiment of an age as David's The Oath of the Horatii (1784), The Death of Socrates (1787), and Brutus and his Dead Sons (Louvre, 1789). They were received with acclamation by critics and public alike, and have become almost the logo of the French Revolution.

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