Following Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, Jacques Louis David, a leading figure in the French revolution and first painter to the Emperor, went into exile in Brussels. There he painted General Gérard, a high-ranking commander in the French army and a member of the imperial aristocracy who had also settled temporarily in the Belgian capital.
This portrait is among the first David painted in Brussels and it is remarkable for its clear, bright color and sharp realism.
Jacques Louis David was a leading figure in the revolution and later became first painter to the Emperor. Following the Bourbon restoration of 1815, however, David was forced into exile in Belgium, where he painted a series of portraits of French émigrés who had decamped to the Belgian capital. In fact, the majority of David’s commissions during this period came from French expatriates who were former members of the revolutionary movement or political allies of Napoleon.
One of David’s first portrait commissions in Brussels came from General Étienne-Maurice Gérard, a high-ranking commander in Napoleon’s army. After the defeat of the Grande Armée at the hands of the British and Prussians, Gérard settled temporarily in Belgium. This depiction of Gérard by David was therefore the collaborative effort of two French exiles who, in the years following Napoleon’s downfall, were devoid of political power and at the nadirs of their respective careers. Gérard, however, did not dwell on the reversals he had recently suffered.
David’s portrait successfully expresses the feeling of confidence the commander maintained during this trying period in his life. With its bright, vivid colors, the likeness conveys a sense of documentary realism. The brilliant light gives a splendid sheen to the surfaces of fabrics and stones alike, with the result that the image’s various recessed spaces appear flattened. Otherwise, this is a conventional military portrait. Gérard wears his field service "undress" and riding boots with spurs. A middle-aged man, he holds an opened letter in one hand and grips the corner of his enormous bicorne in the other. He stands on a multicolored, checkerboard pavement, and an inscription on the post of the balustrade provides the artist’s name as well as the location and date of the portrait’s creation. A crimson brocade curtain hangs behind the general, and beyond the balcony, an Italianate landscape dotted with trees and towers stretches into the distance.
The honors Gérard received from kings and emperors are also on display, as his uniform is bedecked with military insignias, including the star and grand cordon of the Légion d’honneur. Additionally, the epaulettes on his jacket indicate that he was a général de division in the imperial army. Gérard is thus presented as a man of action who is worthy of holding other powerful positions and garnering future accolades. And the patron’s optimism about the future was not unwarranted: he would go on to revive his military and political careers, later returning to his native country to become minister of war, a marshal, and a senator.
[Charles Howard 2012]
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed: (on pedestal base) L. DAVID. 1816 / BRUX[ELLES]; (on envelope) A Son Excellence / L[e] Gé[néral] Gérard / Com[mandant en] Chef. (To his excellency General Gérard, commander in chief)
the sitter, Brussels and château de Villers Saint-Paul, Oise (until d. 1852); his grandson, Jean-Etienne Desmiers d'Olbreuse, comte d'Archiac, château de Villers Saint-Paul (1852–d. 1927); his nephew and adopted son, comte Ferdinand de Bryas-Desmiers d'Archiac (1927–d. 1958; his estate, 1958–59; sold to Wildenstein); [Wildenstein, Paris and New York, 1959–65; sold to MMA]
Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "The Past Rediscovered: French Painting, 1800–1900," July 3–September 7, 1969, no. 22.
London. Royal Academy of Arts and Victoria and Albert Museum. "The Age of Neo-classicism," September 9–November 19, 1972, no. 70 [shown at Royal Academy].
New York. Wildenstein & Co., Inc. "Consulat-Empire-Restauration: Art in Early XIX Century France," April 21–May 28, 1982, unnumbered cat.
Los Angeles. J. Paul Getty Museum. "Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile," February 1–April 24, 2005, no. 50.
Williamstown, Mass. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. "Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile," June 5–September 5, 2005, no. 50.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "Portraits publics, portraits privés, 1770–1830," October 4, 2006–January 9, 2007, no. 130.
London. Royal Academy of Arts. ""Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760–1830," February 3–April 20, 2007, no. 142.
Stockholm. Nationalmuseum. "Staging Power: Napoleon, Charles John, Alexander," September 30, 2010–January 23, 2011, no. 331.
Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. J.-L. David. Paris, 1824, p. 67, quotes the comte de Mansfeld, who visited David in Brussels and admired the full-length portrait of General Gérard.
A[imé]. Th[omé de Gamond]. Vie de David. Paris, 1826, pp. 145, 166, relates that the prince de Mansfeld, the Prussian king's brother, visited David in his Brussels studio and saw this portrait in progress.
P[ierre]. A[lexandre]. Coupin. Essai sur J. L. David, peintre d'histoire . . . Paris, 1827, p. 57.
Charles Blanc. Histoire des peintres français au dix-neuvième siècle. Paris, 1845, vol. 1, pp. 197, 212.
Miette de Villars. Mémoires de David, peintre et député à la Convention. Paris, 1850, pp. 207–8.
E[tienne] J[ean] Delécluze. Louis David, son école & son temps. Paris, 1855, pp. 367–68 n. 1 [repr. 1983, "Louis David, son école & et (sic) son temps"].
Jean du Seigneur. "Appendice à la notice de P. Chaussard sur L. David." Revue universelle des arts 18 (1864), p. 367.
L.-J. [J. L. Jules] David and Jacques Louis David. Notice sur le Marat de Louis David suivie de la liste de ses tableaux dressée par lui-même. Paris, 1867, p. 38.
J. L. Jules David. Le peintre Louis David, 1748–1825. Vol. 1, Souvenirs & documents inédits. Paris, 1880, pp. 531, 583, 649, as belonging to the comte d'Archiac, château de Villers Saint-Paul; describes the costume as that of a général de division.
Charles Saunier. Louis David. Paris, 1904, p. 119.
Isabella Errera. Répertoire des peintures datées. Vol. 1, Brussels, 1920, p. 526.
Richard Cantinelli. Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825. Paris, 1930, p. 113, no. 139.
Klaus Holma. David, son evolution et son style. Paris, 1940, p. 129, no. 145.
Louis Hautecœur. Louis David. Paris, 1954, p. 264.
[Denys Sutton]. "The Magnificent 'Met'." Apollo 82 (September 1965), pp. 166–68, fig. 4.
Theodore Rousseau in "Ninety-fifth Annual Report of the Trustees, for the Fiscal Year 1964–1965." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 24 (October 1965), pp. 55–57, ill.
La chronique des arts, supplément à la Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 67 (February 1966), pl. 232.
Claus Virch. "The Story of Bruegel's Harvesters: A Curator's Coup." Connoisseur 172 (November 1969), pp. 222–23, fig. 1 on p. 221.
Norman Schlenoff. "L'age du Néoclassicisme." L'Oeil nos. 212–13 (August–September 1972), pp. 5–6, ill., ascribes the head and hands to David, but sees the excessive attention to detail elsewhere as a sign of collaboration.
Daniel Wildenstein and Guy Wildenstein. Documents complémentaires au catalogue de l'oeuvre de Louis David. Paris, 1973, p. 204, no. 1 777, p. 227, no. 1 938.
Anthony M. Clark inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1965–1975. New York, 1975, p. 81, ill.
Anita Brookner. Jacques-Louis David. New York, 1980, p. 178, pl. 109, mentions the "undeniable presence of General Gérard and the flimsiness of his surroundings".
Colonel Mac Carthy. Letter to Dean Walker. January 7, 1980 [Mac Carthy was "Conseiller" at the Musée de l'Armée, Hôtel des Invalides], identifies the medals worn by General Gérard.
Antoine Schnapper. David. English ed. New York, 1982, pp. 282, 286, pl. 179, comments that David "painted the general at the single low point of a distinguished career," and admires the sitter's "square, stocky appearance".
Luc de Nanteuil. Jacques-Louis David. New York, 1985, pp. 51, 70, 156, colorpl. 43, as a depiction that is "magnificent and good-natured".
Antoine Schnapper in1770–1830: Autour du Néo-Classicisme en Belgique. Ed. Denis Coekelberghs and Pierre Loze. Exh. cat., Musée Communal des Beaux-Arts d'Ixelles. [Brussels], 1985, ill. p. 29.
Pierre Loze in1770–1830: Autour du Néo-Classicisme en Belgique. Ed. Denis Coekelberghs and Pierre Loze. Exh. cat., Musée Communal des Beaux-Arts d'Ixelles. [Brussels], 1985, p. 439.
Donna Marie Hunter. "Second Nature: Portraits by J.-L. David, 1769–1792." PhD diss., Harvard University, 1988, p. 49, pl. 5, as among the "banal" portraits painted "probably with the help of assistants".
Régis Michel. David: L'art et le politique. Paris, 1988, pp. 122, 172, ill. (color).
Jean-Jacques Lévêque. La vie et l'oeuvre de Jacques-Louis David. Paris, 1989, pp. 222–23, ill. (color), observes that David forecasts here the decorative type and pose of the first photographs.
Warren Roberts. Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill, 1989, p. 198.
Antoine Schnapper inJacques-Louis David, 1748–1825. Exh. cat., Musée du Louvre, Paris and Musée National du Château, Versailles. Paris, 1989, pp. 21, 514, fig. 144.
Jean-Rémy Mantion. "David en toutes lettres." David contre David. Ed. Régis Michel. Paris, 1993, vol. 2, p. 809.
Denis Coekelberghs and Pierre Loze. "David à Bruxelles et la peinture en Belgique." David contre David. Ed. Régis Michel. Paris, 1993, vol. 2, p. 1052.
Sophie Monneret. David et le néoclassicisme. Paris, 1998, pp. 190–91, 196, ill., sees the influence of Rubens, Van Dyck, and Thomas Lawrence.
Simon Lee. David. London, 1999, pp. 290–91, ill. (color).
Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat. Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825: Catalogue raisonné des dessins. Milan, 2002, vol. 2, p. 1161, ill., under no. 1898, publish a preparatory sketch.
Philippe Bordes. Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile. Exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. New Haven, 2005, pp. 292, 301, 304, 307–11, 329, no. 50, ill. (b & w and color), remarks on the balance "between formal pose and naturalness" and observes that the general's presence is animated by the"letters he holds, as if to dispel any intimation of moral solitude in exile"; sees François Gérard's portraits as the immediate inspiration; explicitly rejects Schlenoff's argument.
Sébastien Allard inCitizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760–1830. Exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts. London, 2007, p. 310, no. 142, ill. (color) [French ed., "Portraits publics, portraits privés, 1770–1830," Paris, 2006, pp. 342–44, no. 130, ill. (color)].
Robert Rosenblum inCitizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760–1830. Exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts. London, 2007, p. 266 [French ed., "Portraits publics, portraits privés, 1770–1830," Paris, 2006, p. 324], comments on the staging of the portrait.
According to Colonel MacCarthy, Conseiller at the Musée de l'Armée, Paris, Gérard wears from left to right the following decorations: 1. around his neck, the grand-croix of the Order of Daneborg, conferred in 1808 when he was chef d'état-major to Maréchal Bernadotte while the maréchal was in Copenhagen; 2. star of an officer of the Légion d'honneur; 3. order of the Réunion (Gérard held the grade grand-croix after April 3, 1813, but wears only the insignia of an officer and not the plaque or grand cordon. The order was suppressed by Louis XVIII in 1815.); 4. above right, plaque of the grand-croix of the Légion d'honneur; 5. lower right, plaque of commandeur grand-croix of the Swedish Order of the Sword, conferred on July 29, 1814.
Under his jacket is the grand cordon of the grand-croix of the Légion d'honneur. Gérard is in field service undress, without any embroidery on his jacket. The white feathers on his hat indicate a commanding officer of an army corps.