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David, The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons

Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789, oil on canvas, 10' 7-1/8" x 13' 10-1/8" or 3.23 x 4.22m (Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're at the Musee du Louvre, and we're looking at Jacques-Louis David's Brutus and his Sons. SPEAKER 2: This is one of my favorite paintings by David, and dates to the very year of the revolution itself, 1789. SPEAKER 1: And it was tied beautifully to the revolutionary sentiment in subject. SPEAKER 2: Brutus has led the revolution against the kings in Rome. This is in ancient Rome. Brutus has discovered that his sons have committed treason in attempting to restore the monarchy to Rome. SPEAKER 1: So Brutus, as judge, has taken the extraordinary step of sentencing his own family to death for their treason, putting the state above his own personal family, above his own feelings, above his own needs. SPEAKER 2: And that's the thing that we also see in the Oath of the Horatii. The triumph of reason, of being moral and virtuous, over personal feelings and personal priorities. SPEAKER 1: But this is also a painting about the cost of that. It's not blind patriotism. There is a true emotional power and cost there, and it's tragic. SPEAKER 2: And Brutus sits in shadow, under a statue of Rome, holding this edict in his hand. His feet crossed beneath him, his hand up. He's obviously in thought. His back turned to the body of his sons, who we see being carried in behind him. While his wife and children, who form the other half of the composition, call out, fully illuminated, shielding their eyes, passing out. They can't believe what Brutus has done. SPEAKER 1: Brutus is quiet, he's calm, he's resigned, even if there is a kind of deep tragedy there. The women on the other side and the children have given in to their emotions. SPEAKER 2: In many ways, this fits in with ideas that were around during the revolution that only men really have the capability of sacrificing for the state, of being true citizens, because only men could rise above their emotions and their personal concerns to think about these greater goods. SPEAKER 1: That stoicism seems to be echoed in the very architecture of this space. We have a fairly complex classical environment-- Doric columns, the most pared down. And this is the truest of Greek architecture. But then that's softened, especially in the sphere of the women, in that that's draped with cloth, the softer material. This is a painting that's clearly informed by David's research into classical architecture, into classical furnishings. SPEAKER 2: And the figures themselves resemble ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, the way that the drapery clings to their bodies. The importance of anatomy here is so clear. Of a clarity of space, of a clarity of line. The colors are subdued, but the light comes in really strongly and illuminates these figures. And we have dramatic, powerful gestures. And you're right. This is sacrifice and virtue, but simultaneously the terrible emotional cost of that, not just for Brutus's family, but for Brutus, too. And it's fascinating to me that this painting was made the very year of the revolution, because it seems to speak to the virtues that were required for the revolution. The idea of sacrificing for the greater good. The idea that the revolution brings in ideals of equality before the law. So that even though Brutus is the leader, he's not going to excuse his sons. SPEAKER 1: Tragically, the revolution would turn against its own sons. And this becomes almost a foreshadowing of what will happen. Of course, in that case, you have the excesses of Robespierre and others, where the virtues that are expressed in this early painting by David are turned away from. In some tragic way, this painting does foreshadow the collapse and, in a sense, failure of the revolution.