After many rejections, this painting won David the Academy's first prize in 1774. The
subject this time was also taken from ancient history. Erasistratus had been a Greek
doctor and anatomist, the first man known to have dissected the human body. He
was undoubtedly one of the fathers of modern medicine. Legend has it that he cured
Antiochus, the son of Seleucus, King of Syria. This prince was afflicted with a malady
that was causing him to waste away, and appeared to be incurable. Only Erasistratus
was able to uncover the cause: Antiochus was dying of love for his young stepmother, Stratonice. Erasistratus persuaded the old king to give his young wife to his son,
who then fully recovered.
It is interesting to compare this picture to The Death of Seneca, painted by David only one year earlier, to see how far he had advanced in so short a time.
There are only nine figures in this painting, whereas there had been fourteen in
The Death of Seneca. The composition here is not marred by the extravagant contrasts in the earlier painting; it is linear, rather than angular. The space between the
two main groups of characters is uncluttered and the groups are distinct from one
another. On the left, Erasistratus is seated while Antiochus lies in bed; on the right,
Stratonice is standing and Seleucus is leaning forward. In between, we have the elegant lines of Antiochus and his sickbed. The arrangement of the confidants and servants is discreet and appropriate to the occasion. The atmosphere is calm and
noble--perhaps even a trifle too much so.
The magnificent ornamentation, the architecture worthy of an imperial palace,
the majesty of the different personages--the composition as a whole has the air of a
great spectacle, although one would be hard-pressed to identify the genre to which it
belongs. It is not tragedy; it is not comedy; it is not opera, nor is it ballet. It is not a
real illness or a real cure, but it is, all the same, a magnificent representation.
In this canvas, the painting- although still kept within the limits established by
the Academy- is beginning to reflect a freer approach; David is beginning to find his
way. Skillful and polished, this painting already displays the brilliance of a coloring
that is starting to come to life. The colors David would always favor- white, blue,
yellow, red, flesh and gold tones, gray and brown- are arranged with grace and sup-
pleness as they softly ascend toward the red of Erasistratus's robe, the softer tone of
the king's toga, and the indigo blue of the large drapery hanging from the ceiling. The
drawing is firm but gentle: the body of Antiochus is superbly fresh, Erasistratus's
head is vigorously rendered and Stratonice's face has a very pleasing delicacy. The
lighting, however, is still arbitrary, and the architecture quite heavy and unbalanced.
Most vitally, this painting still lacks vigor and compactness. These qualities
would not appear until later, after David had assimilated the true lessons of the Antiquity that here is still draped, decorated, and arranged in the affected manner of his age.
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