There has been a lot of interest in recent years in the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the inspirer of neoclassicism. I am thinking particularly of Thomas Crow’s brilliant Emulation,1 which examines the human tensions and rivalries within David’s all-male studio, and of Michael Fried’s suggestive Absorption and Theatricality,2 which explores the relationship of painter to viewer. Similarly there has been much discussion of the role of the male nude in neoclassical art, one of the subjects discussed in Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s book. The life class was so central to official academic training in eighteenth-century France that a male nude was simply referred to as an académie. “Typically,” Crow writes, “the student constructed his painting from a sitting or reclining studio pose, the identity of the model being minimally transformed by a few classical props or sometimes only by the name of a classical hero as a title.”

This was the training received by David and his pupils, but it must not be misjudged. Through the codes and conventions, and within the confines, of the single nude study, a painter of genius—and there were a number in David’s studio—could find the way to express most complex things. Such a picture might take rank as a “history painting,” which was regarded as the highest genre; and one could well feel, with Yeats:

All dreams of the soul
End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body.3

It is tempting to suppose that an académie or painted male nude is akin to sculpture, but a moment’s reflection shows this to be a delusion. For a statue inserts itself into the world in a quite different fashion from a painting. One is expected to walk around it, looking at it from all angles, whereas an easel painting, at least by convention, demands to be seen from a fixed vantage point. A free-standing statue does not have a background; and even a sculpted frieze is not likely to have one in the painterly sense. The intrinsic remoteness of painting from sculpture can hardly be exaggerated; and, as it happens, this point is especially relevant in the present context. For what Norman Bryson has called the “lethal” quality of neoclassicism (he does not mean this derogatively) derives precisely from this remoteness. “By means of the historical disaster that left behind only Antiquity’s sculpture and virtually none of its paintings, Antiquity features as an alien or alienating force within the painting” (i.e., David’s The Oath of the Horatii).4

At all events, one thing is clear. The nude, which is natural to sculpture, is (except in the case of an académie) by no means so easily accommodated in painting. Normally in painting, i.e., a visual image of the external world, there will need to be some rationale or justification for nudity. One very familiar one is mythology, since one expects deities to appear nude, especially when their physical beauty is in question. But beyond that, the matter seems to need some narrative contrivance. Kenneth Clark has stressed the great influence of Michelangelo’s cartoon of the Battle of Cascina, in which the soldiers are naked because they have been attacked while bathing.5 The point is not merely a pedantic or petty one: indeed, one could say that it was over this issue that David’s career as a “history painter” came to grief. (He continued to the end to be a most imaginative portrait painter.)

David was already a famous and admired artist before 1789, and an important point instantly springs to mind regarding his great pre-revolutionary canvases, The Oath of the Horatii (1784) and The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789), and equally Marat at His Last Breath (1793). It is that the extraordinary tautness and severity of design in these canvases goes with an equally supreme mastery of narrative, and indeed the two things cannot be distinguished. I am thinking of his Brutus. Lucius Junius Brutus has condemned to death his own sons, who have been drawn into a royalist conspiracy, and the painting depicts the moment when the lictors return with the bodies. It overwhelms us through its iron control of shape and space. The pathetic emergence of the dead sons, or rather of their legs; the face of Brutus immediately in front of them, pointedly veiled in deep shadow; and the aching void, empty chair, and skewered women’s work basket which separate him from the women, whose slumped bodies express their exclusion from this act of male nobility or madness: it is astonishing how much, by such formal means, a painting is able to say.

The agonizing conflicts over “virtue” and civic duty evoked in the Oath and the Brutus are protorevolutionary; and during the Revolution David, not surprisingly, acquired enormous influence as a designer of the revolutionary festivals, as well as turning into a sort of “dictator of the arts.” He became a fanatical Jacobin and follower of Robespierre; and in August 1794, in the aftermath of the fall of Robespierre, he was imprisoned with other Jacobin leaders, remaining incarcerated for five months and spending a further two months in prison in 1795.


During his first imprisonment he was lucky enough, through the helpof an ex-student, to be assigned asmall studio, in which he painted a self-portrait (now in the Louvre), as well as a series of medallion drawings of his Jacobin fellow prisoners. It was a moment of desperate crisis in his life, leading him to a radical reassessment of his outlook; and it was at the same period that he conceived a large-scale “history painting,” The Intervention of the Sabine Women, which, as a sort of apologia for himself, was to express not social conflict but reconciliation.

The subject is taken from early Roman history. Some three years before the incident depicted, the Romans abducted the women of the neighboring Sabines, and the Sabines have now mounted a revenge attack. Tatius, the Sabine leader, and Romulus, the founder of Rome, are about to engage in single combat; but the Sabine women, who now have fathers and brothers in one camp and husbands in the other, rush between them and their armies, appealing for peace. (According to the story, as David himself related it, their appeal succeeds and “soon the Romans and the Sabines embrace to form a single people.”6 )

The stages in the work’s progress tell one a great deal. In the early drawings the incident has a very powerful narrative quality. The Sabine women have burst on the scene in frenzy, and their leader Hersilia, the wife of Romulus, can be seen, with her wildly streaming hair, to be as distraught as the rest. Thus Hersilia’s eloquent gesture and posture, one arm extended toward the Sabines, the other toward the Romans, is evidently the inspiration of the moment. Meanwhile Tatius and Romulus, dressed in workmanlike soldierly clothes, are on the very point of putting their weapons to use. Later on in the preparation of the painting, however (it took in all some five years), David reappraised his project, deciding he would paint the male warriors (though not the women) nude and the horses without bit and bridle. He explained to his students: “I have undertaken to make a new thing…; I want to bring art back to the principles followed by the Greeks. In making the Horatii and the Brutus, I was still under the Romans’ influence.”7

The decision to “Greekify” transformed the painting. It did so in obvious ways—for in real-life terms it would be ridiculous for warriors to fight stark naked—and also in less obvious but equally important ones. For Hersilia now appears composed and in command of herself, and her beseeching gesture, which had always been the central motif of the picture, is now deliberate and “statuesque.” One result of this is to put it into our minds that the woman behind her, who has lifted up her baby to heaven, could have adopted this too as a deliberate rhetorical pose and is threatening to dash the baby onto the ground.

The more one explores the painting in its final state, the more one feels that the tragic genius who created the Horatii, the Brutus, and the Marat has gone astray. As narrative, the Sabines is patently absurd, in a dozen ways; and Stendhal’s remark, in his Salon of 1824, is not too far off the mark:

This man [David’s Romulus] is supposed to be fighting for his life and throne; there he is face to face in armed combat with the rival determined to usurp and kill him, and yet all he can do is strike an attitude, show off his fine muscles and throw his javelin gracefully. 8

Yet the picture is clearly meant to be a narrative:many little details, like the woman embracing Tatius’ knee, are there entirely for storytelling purposes. Moreover the Leonidas at Thermopylae, which came fourteen years later, is open to exactly the same objections (as well as some others). Both paintings are magnificently executed, but they have no power over our mind or feelings.


Such observations may seem an indirect route toward Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s Necklines, but it is the best I can find. Hers is certainly a challenging book and, to me, a baffling one. Its subject is the works that David produced in the years immediately following his arrest and imprisonment: in particular his prison Self-Portrait (1794); a recently discovered canvas, Abandoned Psyche (1794); the medallion portraits of his fellow prisoners; some drawings for a Homer Reciting His Verses to the Greeks (1794); The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799); and the unfinished portrait of Madame Récamier (1800). In effect, it is a work of biographical criticism. It asks: Where was David the person in the great works which first made his name? It puts forward the view that “one salient aspect of David’s post-Thermidorian production is that the artist himself begins to figure in his work.” In practice this means giving a biographical (psychobiographical) explanation of why the author thinks these works are unsuccessful. To a reader, like myself, who admires certain of these works, this makes for difficulty from the start. Then there is a further problem: Lajer-Burcharth is dazzlingly ingenious and unquestionably exceedingly well-informed, but I can rarely manage to be convinced by anything she says.


Let us begin with her discussion of the prison Self-Portrait. It will be a good idea to work through her discussion at length, for it is an excellent example of her methods. For me, this self-portrait is a touching and haunting work. We cannot avoid bringing some biography to it—for instance the fact that David was in prison when he painted it, and the reasons for this. The sitter’s troubled gaze seems to be saying, “Everything is bewildering, apart from the fact that—whatever this may imply—I am a painter.”9 The image, appropriately, tilts toward the palette held in the sitter’s right hand, and the deep shadow on his right cheek and on the palette seems exactly expressive of a phrase used by David himself at the time: “They tend to confuse the figure of the ever pensive artist [my italics] with the hideous mask of a conspirator.”

The face is rather beautiful. In fact, however, David was an ugly man; and what an innocent viewer would not know, for it is here concealed by shadow, is that his left cheek10 was badly disfigured by a tumor. Lajer-Burcharth, evidently prompted by this unseen swollen cheek, speaks of the painting in terms of disorder and pathology. She finds the palette a “strangely disarticulated—and disarticulating—object.” Rather than a professional tool, she says, it is “a morbid pictorial ghost of artistic de-formation, a tool of professional un-doing”; and she quotes T.J. Clark as saying it looks like “David’s brain decomposing between his fingers.”11 To enforce her point, she reproduces a portrait by Duplessis of David’s master Vien in his studio, his palette covered in neat, well-organized dollops of paint. (But, one objects, how totally inappropriate in David’s self-portrait would have been such a token of untroubled, nose-to-the-grindstone professionalism. David knows no better than we do what is now going to come out of his palette.)

Lajer-Burcharth quotes T.J. Clark as saying, rightly, that the disheveled hair in the portrait “could hardly be…more intent on saying ‘without a wig.”‘ But she adds: “And yet, it seems that someone’s own hair could hardly look more like a wig, its messy, matted strands not belonging with the head but rather sitting on top of it askew like a borrowed toupee.” I must say I cannot see this.

Then there is the sitter’s loose-fitting coat, or houppelande. This, says Lajer-Burcharth, “rather than being a metaphor for the materiality of the body…could be seen as the material sign of David’s political body.” He would, she says, have originally adopted it in imitation of Marat, and its presence here, and the “unfinished” quality of the painting of it, expresses David’s regret and discomfort over his Jacobin past.

Also, it is a “feminine” sign—not only because houppelande is feminine in French grammar (but then so is that other favorite male garment, the redingote!) but because of its “distinctly vulvic shape.” “The houppelande’s uncanny fleshiness of a not simply anatomical but more specifically sexual organ, its vulva-like velvet morphology, is the materialization of a pictorial disavowal of the woman David was.”

So we come to David’s swollen cheek. David, the argument runs, is concealing it because, in the eyes of his enemies, this facial distortion had symbolized the lust for massacre of the Terror (and this would have been the interpretation put on it by the newly dominant science of physiognomy). The message of the painting is thus to be sought above all in what is not there, a swollen cheek.

But then, in an earlier self-portrait by David (Uffizi Gallery), painted three years before the Terror, the swollen cheek is not there either. So Lajer-Burcharth’s argument can hardly be said to work. It is, indeed, a runaway, a headlong and unstoppable argument or form of argument, and one chiefly feels like scrambling out of its way.

We come next to David’s medallion portraits of his fellow prisoners. They strike me as a most observant, discerning, and sympathetic achievement. Norman Bryson is right in saying that “to the last, David’s portraits issue from the humane side of his personality.”12 For the portraits of Saint-André and of Bernard de Saintes (formidably individualized), David has chosen a folded-arms posture which nicely rebels against the circular frame, giving a living quality and air of resoluteness to the sitter. The series strikes me as well worthy to be a “Gift of friendship, solace of love” as he inscribed the one of Jeanbon Saint-André.13

Lajer-Burcharth, however, finds these portraits “ruthless” and “brutal,” the face of de Saintes looking, to her, uncommonly like that of a maniac in a medical treatise. These imprisoned Montagnards 14 seem, to her, “pumped out of all emotion,” wrecked by the loss of supportive male love. Nor do these portraits, for her, offer anything in the way of psychological truth. “We feel as if we are being let into the theatrical coulisses of likeness, where the actors still rehearse their roles and where we see the props of their performance.”

In keeping with this, Lajer-Burcharth tells us we are to see a special significance in the sitters’ necklines, which are “remarkably overelaborated, disappearing under the proliferating cravats.” At the neckline, “the fiction of the pose is conspicuously ripped owing to the de-semioticizing pull of the Montagnard actual flesh.” In a word, those necklines are meant to put us in mind of the guillotine. Did not fashionable ladies of the Directoire sometimes wear a scarlet ribbon around their neck in allusion to the guillotine? What could a certain (unremarkable) triangular area on de Saintes’s redingote be, “if not the guillotine’s blade”? This is how Lajer-Burcharth’s book acquired its seductive title. But is this not one of those captivating ideas that one cherishes for ten minutes but then, with a sigh, has to steel oneself to give up? Stare at those necklines as one will, they remain—just necklines.

Central to Lajer-Burcharth’s outlook is the concept of “the body as a historically privileged cultural representation of the self.” This, she says, “with the paradigm shift in the studies of the French Revolution during the 1980s and 1990s,” has become the main focus of scholarly investigation, and it is in the Thermidorian period,15 she writes, that the relation between body and self becomes a problem. She sees David’s painting in the Thermidorian period as sharing in a general trend toward “placing the subject in the new republican society through recourse to the notion of the physical body.” The word “body” also engenders in Lajer-Burcharth’s account a train of puns or quasi puns, for instance on the “social body” (David as revolutionary pageant master is said to think of the public as “a body in space”), and “incorporation” (David and his studio, considered as a one-man institution, becomes “David incorporated”).

“Self” is a flexible word, and Lajer-Burcharth goes on to gloss it as “the idea of the self as a function of desire.” All the same, she does not make it clear how you would find a “self,” which sounds like something inward, through the body. It is significant that the individuality in those prison portraits does not impress Lajer-Burcharth; indeed she refuses to see anything at all inward in them.

What one comes to realize, however, is that Lajer-Burcharth does not clearly distinguish between the body and dress. It is well known that the period of the Directoire in France (1795-1799) saw a remarkable revolution in dress, both male and female—fashionable women adopting a style of “Grecian” near-nakedness, and male fops and incroyables sporting immense stocks, elaborate shoe ribbons, and baggy silk pantaloons. Lajer-Burcharth takes this as a quest for selfhood. The function of fashion in the earlier eighteenth century, she says, was mainly to assert social distinctions, whereas in the Directoire period it was an effort at identifying oneself as an “autonomous private person.”

This idea is not too easy to swallow. For one might suppose that sartorial competition with one’s own sex was a question, rather, of being just like one’s rivals, only “more so.” It is not plain how it would give one an autonomous identity. Certainly, in this sphere as in others, women in the Thermidorian period were revenging themselves for the repressive masculinity of the Jacobins, and men were adapting styles—defensively and narcissistically—in the face of the female challenge. But that seems to be another matter.

It is, indeed, the matter that forms the subject of most of the later part of Lajer-Burcharth’s book, which explores in some depth the relations between art history and the history of dress. She writes about the Sabines from the point of view of male fashion practices and, not unshrewdly, sees the painting as depicting not so much the triumph of humane feminine values as a defensive male reaction toward female aggression. Tatius and Romulus, in their beautiful and polished nudity, are, she suggests, at once competing, like two incroyables, in what you might call an “undress competition,” and they are leagued together against interfering or “intervening” women. Lajer-Burcharth is at times as rude about the Sabines as Stendhal, speaking of its “deadly, static corporeality” and of Romulus’ “mannequin corpus.” This is not too unfair; one has had some of the same thoughts oneself.

But as for Lajer-Burcharth’s final chapter, which concerns David’s portrait of Juliette Récamier (see illustration on page 15), its argument is liable to stun the reader. It proposes that the heavy spill of Récamier’s drapery on the floor is an “anamorphic” representation of David’s lost aesthetic vision.

Let us, with the minimum of words, try to follow the argument through. In Lajer-Burcharth’s view, David, famous as the painter of wounded male martyrs such as Marat, adopted toward them the role of a grieving mother.16 (This, she believes, is the direction that his libido took; he is the painter of loss.) In his Death of Socrates (1787; see illustration on page 15), which depicts Socrates semirecumbent on a bed, a moment before he grasps the cup of hemlock, the position of Crito—who grips the master’s thigh and is enjoying “the privileged place of the grieving male subject’s attachment to the departing (male) object of his love”—is similar to the placing on the canvas of David’s loving inscription (“For Marat—David. Year II.”) in Marat at His Last Breath. This suggests that we have here an important configuration for David, symbolizing loss. Thus it is significant that the spill of Récamier’s train onto the floor is reminiscent of the fall of Socrates’ draperies in The Death of Socrates.17 It is in this “site” that David has “painted himself” into the portrait of Récamier.

The heavy white train seems an “excrescence,” but, in a portrait which gives us little awareness of Récamier’s actual body, it should be read as a displaced symbolic version of that body; and in devoting so much attention to it, David is once again affirming loss, but with a quite new inflection. For what the train symbolizes is not a man’s but a woman’s body, and accordingly it provokes envy and resentment. To use a phrase employed elsewhere by Lajer-Burcharth, it signifies to David the “loss of loss”—the losing of the mournful pleasure in painting male martyrdom that was once his aesthetic inspiration. We should not be surprised, Lajer-Burcharth writes, that he quarreled with Récamier and did not complete the painting.

I hope I have got this roughly right. It is prodigiously inventive, but as a logical construction, building hypothetical connections between what are already infinitely questionable hypotheses, it strikes me as desperately shaky. A bridge constructed on such principles would never stand up.

This Issue

May 25, 2000