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

Video transcript

with the musee de louvre and we're looking at Jacques Louis Brutus and his sons this is one of my favorite paintings by David and dates to the very year of the revolution itself 1789 and it was tied beautifully to the revolutionary sentiment in subject Brutus has led the revolution against the Kings in Rome this is an ancient realm Brutus has discovered that his sons have committed treason in empting to restore the monarchy to Rome 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 and that's the theme that we also see in the earth of the ratio the triumph of reason of being moral and virtuous over personal feelings and personal priorities this is also painting about the cost of that it's not blind for patriotism there is a true emotional power and cost there and it's tragic in 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 formed the other half of the composition call out fully illuminated shielding their eyes passing out they can't believe what Brutus has done Judas is quiet he's calm he's resigned even if it there is a kind of deep tragedy there the women on the other side and the children have given in to their emotions and many this fits in with ideas that were around during the revolution that only men really had the capability of sacrificing for the state of being true citizens because only men could rise above their emotions and there are personal concerns to think about these greater goods 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's draped with cloth the softer material this is a painting it's clearly informed by David's research into classical architecture into classical furnishings and the figures themselves resemble ancient Greek and Roman sculpture the way that the drapery clings to their body is 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 son's tragically the revolution would turn against its own sons and this becomes almost a foreshadowing a 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 daveed are turned away from in some tragic way this painting does foreshadow the collapse and in a sense failure of the revolution