Simon Schama's Power of Art: Season 1, Episode 4

David (10 Nov. 2006)

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This time Simon rather uses the works of the iron-monger's son, orphaned at 7 by a duel and trained by a famous relative, Boulanger, in the art of 'bonbonniere' paintings to the taste of ... See full summary »

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Title: David (10 Nov 2006)

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Simon Schama ...
Himself - Presenter
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Charlotte Corday
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David
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This time Simon rather uses the works of the iron-monger's son, orphaned at 7 by a duel and trained by a famous relative, Boulanger, in the art of 'bonbonniere' paintings to the taste of the aristocracy, as illustration of a fairly elaborate sketch of the road to and trough the French Revolution rather then the other way around. David incurred a permanent jaw-mark which marked his face, speech and social skills, rather estranging him from his patrons and the Royal Academy, despite his ultimate success. After expensive French support to the American Revolution contributed to rising poverty and outcry for change, David soon espoused the cause of the revolution, even becoming a member of the legislative Convention, in the ranks of the fanatical publicist Marat, whose slaying by a moderate revolutionary he portrayed masterly, and tyrant Robespierre, the incarnation of political terror by guillotine whose head ended up like 'last' king Louis XVI's, David even rises to chief of its visual ... Written by KGF Vissers

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David, Propagandist.
30 January 2011 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

How much you'll enjoy this episode, and how much you'll learn from it, depends a lot on your knowledge of, or at least your interest in, French history because at least as much time is given over to the political tumult of David's time as to the works themselves.

In the late 1800s, France is a poor country, having spent a lot of money helping Americans win the Revolutionary War. Taxes go up, but the only people being taxed are those of modest income. The nobility and the clergy are exempt.

David, seeing the injustice in this arrangement, paints pictures of scenes drawn from antiquity but still inflammatory. King Louis XVI tries to compromise with the restless and demanding public but the problem is that once a popular revolution begins there's no real negotiating possible. Every dead hero must be avenged, which creates still more dead heroes, leading to still more revenge, and so on.

The two leaders of the paranoid mass executions that followed were Robespierre and Marat. They called at first for a few hundred heads of the worst offenders but later demanded tens of thousands. (They got as many as 40,000 -- nobody knows for sure.) Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette, got the guillotine. Antoine Lavoisier -- who discovered oxygen and hydrogen and the law of conservation of mass -- got it too. Charlotte Corday finally cornered Marat in his bath and stabbed him to death. Charlotte Corday got it too.

Jacques-Louis David sailed through all this uproar on the top of the wave. He had painted the nobility before. (He'd done a portrait of Lavoisier and his wife.) Now he did his best-known work, a picture of Marat dead in his bath tub. You'll probably recognize it you see it, whether or not you can identify it from a written description. But David -- whom Schama and I both dislike -- was a kind of Goebbels of the French Revolution, or maybe a Sergei Eisenstein, a propagandist who became famous for his sublime propaganda. David cleaned up the ugly, sweaty, scabby Marat and turned him into a gorgeous marble statue, a martyr to the cause. Eventually, Robespierre went too far in his rabble rousing and public executions. The public tired of his heads and circuses. He got the guillotine too.

Order was restored with Napoleon, a national hero determined to bring democracy to the world "at the point of a gun." David paints an elegant and heroic portrait of Napoleon astride a magnificent horse, flags flying, battle smoke in the background. You'll recognize it even if you've never HEARD of David because it's been featured in so many magazine ads for Napoleon brandy.

Napoleon ended the lawlessness that had prevailed in France but David figured it was time to get out anyway. Revolutionary fervor was no longer needed. He went to Belgium, painted more aristocrats, and died there.

Schama was right to spend so much time on the political and economic conditions of David's period. A revolution sets forces into motion that, by their own nature, must become excessive. If it's good to be a little critical of the ruler, then isn't it even better to be VERY critical of the ruler? Everyone ought to see this if only for its political content, especially those who are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson's, "The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants." As if you could shut off the blood like a garden hose.


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