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Leonidas at Thermopylae

Jacques Louis David French

Not on view

When Napoleon, years before, had seen David’s sketches for a painting of the ill-fated Spartan king Leonidas, he admonished the artist not to waste his time depicting the vanquished. But in the late years of the Empire, when David revived the project, the mood in the French capital had grown dark, and military defeats were mounting. In 1813, the year inscribed on this sheet, David’s son Eugène was injured during the French army’s German campaign.

David shows no bloodshed, highlighting instead the resolve of the outnumbered warriors in the face of impending death. He thus suggests metrics beyond the binary outcomes of the battlefield. For Leonidas, as for the contemporary martyrs David had memorialized during the Revolution, patriotic sacrifice represented a path to eternal glory.

Leonidas at Thermopylae, Jacques Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels), Pen and black ink, brush and gray and black wash, heightened with white gouache, over black chalk, lightly squared in black chalk

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