Jacques-Louis David:
Antiochus and Stratonice

Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.

    • Oil on Canvas
    • 1774
    • École des Beaux-Arts at Paris.

After many rejections, this painting won David the Academy's first prize in 1774. The subject was taken from ancient history. Erasistratus was a Greek doctor and anatomist, the first man known to have dissected the human body. Legend has it that he cured Antiochus, the son of Seleucus, King of Syria who was afflicted with an apparantly incurable malady that was causing him to waste away. Only Erasistratus was able to uncover the cause: Antiochus was dying of love for his young stepmother, Stratonice. Erasistratus persuaded the old king to give his young wife to his son, who then fully recovered.

The composition here is not marred by the extravagant contrasts in David's earlier painting; it is linear, rather than angular. The space between the two main groups of characters is uncluttered and the groups are distinct from one another. On the left, Erasistratus is seated while Antiochus lies in bed; on the right, Stratonice is standing and Seleucus is leaning forward. In between, we have the elegant lines of Antiochus and his sickbed. The arrangement of the confidants and servants is discreet and appropriate to the occasion. The atmosphere is calm and noble--perhaps even a trifle too much so.

The magnificent ornamentation, the architecture worthy of an imperial palace, the majesty of the different personages--the composition as a whole has the air of a great spectacle, although one would be

hard-pressed to identify the genre to which it belongs. It is not tragedy; it is not comedy; it is not opera, nor is it ballet. It is not a real illness or a real cure, but it is, all the same, a magnificent representation.

In this canvas, the painting--although still kept within the limits established by the Academy--is beginning to reflect a freer approach; David is beginning to find his way. Skillful and polished, this painting already displays the brilliance of a coloring that is starting to come to life. The colors David would always favor--white, blue, yellow, red, flesh and gold tones, gray and brown--are arranged with grace and suppleness as they softly ascend toward the red of Erasistratus's robe, the softer tone of the king's toga, and the indigo blue of the large drapery hanging from the ceiling. The drawing is firm but gentle: the body of Antiochus is superbly fresh, Erasistratus's head is vigorously rendered and Stratonice's face has a very pleasing delicacy. The lighting, however, is still arbitrary, and the architecture quite heavy and unbalanced.

In general, however, the painting still lacks vigor and compactness. These qualities would appear later, after David had assimilated the true lessons of the Antiquity that here is still draped, decorated, and arranged in the affected manner of his age.

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