The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1787
Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825)
Black chalk, pen and black and brown ink, brush and gray and brown wash, heightened with white gouache; 13 1/8 x 16 5/8 in. (33.2 x 42.1 cm)
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2006 (2006.264)
This recently discovered sheet is a compositional study for The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (Musée du Louvre, Paris), which Jacques Louis David painted on the eve of the French Revolution and exhibited shortly after the fall of the Bastille in 1789. The subject, drawn from Roman history, found great resonance in the context of contemporary events. The canvas depicts an episode from the life of Lucius Junius Brutus, who put an end to the brutal regime of Tarquin, Rome's last king, and established the first Roman Republic, only later to find his two sons embroiled in a royalist conspiracy. True to his political convictions, Brutus condemned his sons to death. The novelty of David's painting is its focus, not on the executions but on the wrenching domestic aftermath.
David's fully formed Neoclassical style can be seen here in the clean geometry of the architectural setting, the arrangement of the figures in a relieflike plane, the linear treatment of the forms, and the cool monochrome palette. The furniture and accessories and the poses of the main figures, from the brooding Brutus at the left to his anguished wife and daughters at the right, are all based on antiquities David copied while he was a student in Rome.