Text by Geoffrey Smith
Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions
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In 1790 David joined the Jacobin Club, the most radical of the political groupings which sprang up in the wake of the 1789 revolution. He became increasingly involved in political life and in 1792 he was elected as deputy for Paris in the National Convention where he chose to sit with the ‘Mountain’ (so called because they occupied the highest seats in the chamber) who were an extreme Jacobin faction led by Maximilien Robespierre. In 1793 David voted in favour of the execution of the king and he became a zealous supporter of the terror which ensued when Robespierre and his supporters gained control of the Committee of Public Safety and through it the governance of France. During January 1794 David served as President of the Convention. One of his responsibilities was to sign arrest warrants and it seems that he was assiduous in undertaking these obligations. A few months later in July Robespierre was arrested at the Convention and executed the next day. David, so closely associated with Robespierre and with blood on his hands resulting from all those signatures, was now in grave danger. He was arrested and spent the rest of the year incarcerated (for most of the time in the Luxembourg Palace). He was arrested again in May 1795 and spent a further two months in prison, eventually being released due to ill health.
Shortly after this near miraculous escape from the guillotine he received a commission from two Dutch republicans who were in Paris to negotiate with the newly created Directory (now guiding France along a more moderate political path). Jacobus Blauw and Gaspar Mayer were the representatives of the Batavian Republic which had been set up after French military intervention in the Netherlands. The portrait of Gaspar Mayer also survives and is now in the Louvre. Interestingly Mayer never took delivery of the picture — he may have decided that owning a portrait by a disgraced Jacobin was not at the time a wise option.
Blauw was obviously made of sterner stuff. He was delighted by his likeness and wrote to David ‘You have brought me to life again on the canvas; you have, in a way, immortalised me with your sublime brush’. As well as admiring David’s art Blauw seems to have been in tune with his politics and this comes through in the portrait. His demeanour is one of determined and urgent conviction — one would not be surprised to find out that his pen had been captured at the very point of signing one of those warrants which caused David so many problems. His eyes are full of fervour and his expression is resolute although one feels that there is nevertheless a core of humanity within the politician.
It is a brilliantly observed portrait further enhanced by the care with which David has depicted such items as the brass buttons on Blauw’s simple coat and the objects arrayed on the desk. All is set against the plain background which David favoured thereby concentrating our attention on the point of the painting — that stunning face.
1794 Francisco de Goya: Interior of a Prison, Barnard Castle, Bowes Museum
1795 Thomas Lawrence: Portrait of Sarah Barrett-Moulton (‘Pinkie’), San Marino, CA, Huntington Library and Art Gallery
1796 Benjamin West: Death on a Pale Horse, Detroit, Institute of Arts