The savagery of the French Revolution, which declared the Rights of Man but turned to bloody-handed tyranny and repressive terrorism, has long puzzled historians. Among the list of causes, and one rarely remembered, Elizabeth Wilson writes, was the painter Jacques-Louis David. Today, he is best known as one of the great masters of French painting a defining master of an austere neoclassical style that dominated European art for almost a half-century and one of the precursors of modern painting. But for a few terrifying years David was also "the propaganda minister of the French Revolutio a man who could turn an unruly mob, ready to kill for a loaf of bread, into tearful patriots willing to die for the cause."
Wilson's story traces David's life and work, his great ambition and success. That success was mostly nonpolitical until 1785, when one of his monumental and posterish neoclassical paintings, The Oath of the Horatii, in which three brothers swear to fight to the death for their homeland, became linked to patriotic fervor as the Revolution was about to get under way. David went on not only to document the Tennis Court Oath, when the Revolution more or less officially began, but to produce on demand "state funerals and martyr portraits, multimedia pageants with a cast of thousands all designed to keep the revolutionary faith alive, even when bodies were piling up ten deep beside "la guillotine." His most startling picture, and one that links him most clearly to modern painting, is the martyr portrait of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, dead in his bath after being stabbed by Charlotte Corday.
The guillotine devoured many revolutionary leaders, and, indeed, David had declared he wanted to die with Robespierre, the principal architect of the Terror. But he survived, instead, and soon began fawning upon the young Napoleon. David was a turncoat and a sycophant, but a great painter. "He was born into a world in which painting was for the privileged few," Wilson writes. "His images showed the power of art to electrify even the commonest citizen."