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David painted his first self-portrait in 1784, in which he looks like a figure by Fragonard. This picture, which he painted in prison after the fall of Robespierre, expressed--perhaps more fully than the others--David's power and truthfulness, his determination, lucidity, and self-respect.
Arrested just after Thermidor, 2 August1794, David was taken to the House of Detention at the Hôtel des Fermes, rue de Grenelle. His cell was, in fact, a small studio belonging to one of his pupils who was then serving in the Army. The conditions of his imprisonment were lenient. His wife, from whom he had been divorced since March, took their children to see him. One of his pupils brought him drawing and painting materials as well as a mirror. It was in front of this mirror that he executed this self-portrait in August 1794. After all that had happened, he wanted to see himself clearly.
On the moral plane, we can read the painter's character in his own rendition: willful, reserved, passionate, and agitated. We need only to look at him to understand why he threw himself into the Revolution with such fervor; above all, we understand--and this may be the most interesting psychological aspect of the work--how David was simultaneously a portraitist and a history painter. His scrutinizing gaze flashes with both acumen and eagerness. He had the gift of seeing more intensely than other people; he has an inquisitive air about him. He tried to make his rendering more forceful--his fingers tightly clasped around the brush and palette are an involuntary admission. Finally, an almost fierce passion can be seen in his gaze, the passion to penetrate reality, to discover its meaning and purpose. The portraitist wanted to grasp the core of human nature, the history painter wanted to give it an ideal form.