David had just returned to Paris after his sojourn in Rome. He solicited the honor of
being admitted to the Academy and participating in its annual exhibition with a history painting.
The subject he chose belonged more to the sentimental genre of which
his age was so fond than to the heroic genre. In this respect, both Belisarius and Saint
Roch can be considered transitional works in David's career.
Belisarius, a general under Justinian, was one of the greatest military commanders of his time
and the spearhead of Byzantium's attempts to rebuild the Roman Empire. His very successes,
however, made him many enemies. Incriminated in a plot
against Justinian, his eyes were put out on the Emperor's orders in 561 A.D. According to the
historian Procopius, Belisarius, stripped of all his possessions, was reduced
to begging in the streets of Byzantium.
In this painting, Belisarius is begging for alms at the foot of a monument redolent of military
triumph. The structure opens out onto a classical landscape dotted
with tiny figures and shrubs, which forms a painting within the painting- evoking
Poussin's landscapes of the Roman countryside, but in a more geometric and architectural way.
This is a strong and sober work, centered around four expressive figures. Reticence and
emotion emanate from the almost closed are formed by these personages.
The woman is restraining her emotion; the faces of the child and the old man are
admirably disposed in a contrapuntal and harmonious relationship. Slightly tilted,
one toward the right, the other toward the left, they seem to form two slopes, one in
the light and the other in shadow. Their tresses are flowing and the old man's beard
brushes against the child's curls. Beyond them, dumbstruck as he recognizes his former general
in this beggar, a soldier throws up his arms. He stands there as erect as
the colonnade, a ghost from the past.
The faces, which are very noble- those of the woman, the child, and the old
man are particularly beautiful- personify different spiritual aspects of grandeur. The
woman embodies delicacy, solicitude, and pity. The face of Belisarius exposes his
suffering, which has been exacerbated by humiliation. Hennequin, David's young
pupil, posed for the child's face, which is a cry of youth and entreaty.
The somewhat muted colors originate, for the most part, in a natural harmony
with the sorrowful solemnity of the scene. Following Vien's advice, David erased the
woman's red cloak and made it more subdued. A powerful shaft of light pierces the
painting, pushing that which evokes the past or is a painful reminder of it into shadow. The
bright white of the child's clothing and the somber tone of the woman's
cloak are highlighted in homage to the purity of these two figures, while the face of
Belisarius seems to be enshrouded by a gray nimbus, and the soldier seems frozen in a
It was on the basis of this painting that David was unanimously "approved" by
the Academy in 1781. Belisarius was an immediate success, although some criticized
its somberness. Diderot wrote: "This young man shows the grand manner in the way
he has carried out his work; he has soul, his heads have expression without affectation, his
attitudes are noble and natural, he draws, he knows how to cast a drapery
and paint beautiful folds. His color is beautiful without being brilliant."
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