Oil on canvas, 317/s x 25'/4"
Paris, 1794
Musée du Louvre, Paris

David painted his first self-portrait in 1784, in which he looks like a figure by Fragonard. He painted quite a different self-portrait in 1790-91-one characterized by a very disquieting gaze. In his last self-portrait, painted in 1813, he is wearing a frock coat with the Ribbon of the Legion of Honor pinned to his buttonhole. This picture, which he painted in prison after the fall of Robespierre, expressed- perhaps more fully than the others--David's power and truthfulness, his determination, lucidity, and self-respect.

Arrested just after Thermidor, August 2, 1794, David was taken to the House of Detention at the Hôtel des Fermes, rue de Grenelle. His cell was, in fact, a small studio belonging to one of his pupils who was then serving in the Army. The conditions of his imprisonment were lenient. His wife, from whom he had been divorced since March, took their children to see him. One of his pupils brought him drawing and painting materials as well as a mirror. It was in front of this mirror that he executed this self-portrait in August 1794. After all that had happened, he wanted to see himself clearly.

His grandson, Jules David, who has given posterity valuable information about the painter, described David as follows: "He was a man of large stature, with well- proportioned limbs developed by physical exercise, especially fencing, in which he had acquired a certain strength, giving him a very distinguished appearance. He had chestnut hair, luxuriant and curly, a high forehead, and eyes of an extraordinary brightness."

David's genuine attractiveness was unfortunately marred by a facial deformity. As a result of a wound suffered in his youth during a fencing match, a tumor had begun to develop in his right cheek and, over the years, it caused the cheek to swell more and more. At the time this portrait was painted, the tumor was still benign, but it bothered the painter, whose elocution was already marked (as had been his father's) by the exaggerated way in which he rolled his "r's." In his self-portrait, David tried to mask the size of his cheek, although he did not altogether diminish it. This is the only detail about himself that he touched up.

On the moral plane, also, we can read the painter's character in his own rendition: willful, reserved, passionate, and agitated. We need only to look at him to understand why he threw himself into the Revolution with such fervor; above all, we understand--and this may be the most interesting psychological aspect of the work--how David was simultaneously a portraitist and a history painter. His scrutinizing gaze flashes with both acumen and eagerness. He had the gift of seeing more intensely than other people; he has an inquisitive air about him. He tried to make his rendering more forceful--his fingers tightly clasped around the brush and palette are an involuntary admission. Finally, an almost fierce passion can be seen in his gaze, the passion to penetrate reality, to discover its meaning and purpose. The portraitist wanted to grasp the core of human nature, the history painter wanted to give it an ideal form.

This work is in the tradition of the great portrait that concentrates upon the face and hands while embroidering only a few of the setting's features. In a very modern style and with a very lucid treatment, David rediscovered the manner of Rembrandt and of Titian. It was not by chance that he thus joined the greatest painters in this serious and profound self-examination.

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