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Jacques-Louis David had his first training with Boucher, a distant relative, but Boucher realized that their temperaments were opposed and sent David to Vien. David went to Italy with the latter in 1776, Vien having been appointed director of the French Academy at Rome, and David having won the Prix de Rome. In Italy, David was able to indulge his bent for the antique and came into contact with the initiators of the new Classical revival, including the Englishman Gavin Hamilton. He also became well trained in the religious paintings of rococo Rome, of which this subject is an outstanding example. In 1780 he returned to Paris where he completed the work and exhibited it to great aclaim. It was to be, however, the last of his religious paintings. In the 1780s he firmly established a position as the artist who most embodied a social and moral reaction to both the frivolity of the Rococo and the religious language and imagery of baroque Catholicism..
The composition here shows little innovation. It depicts St. Roch, patron saint of people suffering from the plague, intervening with the Virgin and child for the dying victims on earth. St. Roch is always portrayed with running sores on his body (rather muted in this depiction), dressed in his pilgrim clothing and staff (according to the legend he caught the plague while on a pilgrimage), and accompanied by a dog who licks his wounds. The setting is above an Italian town, and the theologically interesting variant is Mary's attitude. Listening to St. Roch's appeal, she seems to be ordering her son to do something about the situation.