Cover image for Necklines : the art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror
Necklines : the art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror
Lajer-Burcharth, Ewa.
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Publication Information:
New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, [1999]

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x, 374 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm
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ND553.D25 L35 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This book examines the crucial period in the painter's career as he struggled to save his neck and recast his identity in the aftermath of the Reign of Terror. Burcharth assesses his works in the context of the larger cultural and social formations emerging in France concluding with an interpretation of the unfinished portrait of Juliette Recamier.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

No artist was more closely tied to the French Revolution than the neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. Twice imprisoned for his political activities during the Terror, David left a visual record of the changes sweeping the French art world, which included a new professional autonomy for the artist and new studio practices, and of the changes in gender relations in late-18th-century France, such as new divorce laws and new scientific approaches to the female body. Relying upon the psychoanalytic studies of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Harvard professor Lajer-Burcharth looks at the pleasure-seeking upper echelons of French society through David's work. Lajer-Burcharth has a knack for helping the reader to visualize a painting (she compares a shadow behind one of David's figures to "a black stain leaking from a body"), and her discussion of how David used history painting to free himself from prison is intriguing. Unfortunately, her dense jargon hampers what could have been an exciting text in the vein of Katherine Fischer Taylor's In the Theater of Criminal Justice, an earlier study of post-Revolutionary France that used a narrow focus to dramatize major cultural shifts. 11 color plates not seen by PW; 165 b&w illus. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Focusing on the period after the fall of Robespierre, Lajer-Burcharth (humanities, Harvard) reframes David's art in relation to gender tensions within French society at the time and within the artist's vision of himself. The methodologies of gender studies and semiotics are the focus of her argument, which sacrifices traditional art historical analysis. The author demonstrates how revolutionary dress and the stresses and losses it implied were reflected in the instability of David's art and his place as a revolutionary artist in French society. While trying to offer a new perspective on David and on visual representation during this period of French history, Lajer-Burcharth often looses her focus by cloaking David and his art in literary theory and opaque jargon. Recommended only for art libraries that support graduate programs in art history. While concentrating on the same time period, Roberts examines David and Jean-Louis Prieur, the most popular illustrator of the period, within a post-Marxist framework. Roberts first defines the Revolution in the theoretical terms of Jrgen Habermas's bourgeois public sphere, which is separate from the political sphere of the state. He also discusses Roger Chartier's idea of the division of the educated elite from the masses during the French Revolution. With these theoretical underpinnings, the author examines Prieur and David, who in their art reflected the concerns of both the plebeian "peuple" and the educated "public" of the salons. A detailed historical account of the key moments of the Revolution is included and related to the works of both men. This scholarly study is recommended only for libraries that support graduate programs in art or French history.--Sandra Rothenberg, Framingham State Coll. Lib., MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Shadow of the Guillotine I. The Subject of Loss Terror is ... a veritable disorganization of the soul. --Deputy Tallien Perched on the edge of an armchair, a blank wall behind him, a painter's palette in one hand, a brush in the other, the artist seems to fix the viewer with his stare (fig. 1 and plate 1). It is as if we were being summoned by the directness and intensity of David's look to witness his definition of himself: a painter. But insofar as he painted himself looking at his own reflection in a mirror, it is also in front of and for himself that David may be seen to rehearse his identity here: a painter?     When this self-definition through métier was undertaken, in the midst of revolutionary upheaval, David was referred to as just about everything but a painter. "This despicable character," "the accomplice of Catilina," "the fanatic of Robespierre," "the man of blood," "usurper," "traitor," "scoundrel," "the tyrant of the arts," and--the ultimate in name-calling at this stage of the Revolution--"the king": such were the terms used to characterize David during the heated public debates that followed the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor, Year II (27 July 1794).     If David found himself in trouble in the summer of 1794, it was precisely because, in the course of the Revolution, his public persona extended well beyond the narrow confines of artistic profession. A deputy of the National Convention, over which he once presided, and a prominent member of the Jacobin club, David occupied a position of power and influence at the very core of revolutionary politics. In Year II he was actively involved in the revolutionary government, serving as a member of the Committee of General Security responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Terror, and he was perceived to be a close ally and even intimate friend of Robespierre. (Many remembered how, just a few days before the Thermidorian coup, under mounting political pressure at the National Convention, David rushed to the podium and blurted out, for everyone to hear, to Robespierre at his side: "If you drink hemlock, I will drink it with you!") David was moreover the most influential member of the Committee of Public Instruction, the revolutionary culture ministry, which allowed him to control the entire cultural apparatus of the Jacobin Republic. As the overseer of the revolutionary festivals, he turned Paris into a vast urban theater of republican regeneration. Involved in all other major cultural projects of Year II, from orchestrating the cult of the revolutionary heroes to designing republican costumes, David was almost single-handedly responsible for the invention of the symbolic language of republicanism.     The Thermidorian coup brought David's revolutionary career to an abrupt end. Because he was absent from the National Convention when the coup took place--an absence that may have been calculated--he escaped the immediate fate of Robespierre and his followers, who were arrested that day and guillotined the next morning. But he was very soon caught up in the aftermath of the coup. A few days after Thermidor, on August 2, David was accused of complicity with the fallen regime and was arrested by order of the National Convention. He was placed in the makeshift prison of the Hôtel des Fermes in Paris, and it was here, sometime between August 3 and early September 1794, that he painted his self-portrait.     How does one paint oneself in prison? Do such circumstances alter the task of pictorial self-invention in any significant way? How did it matter that the person producing this self-representation was at the time not only a professional painter but also a professional revolutionary? Who is looking at us from this image?     As a self-portrait, David's painting may be seen as, above all, an exercise in a specific aesthetic genre. It has been approached from this perspective by T. J. Clark, for whom it epitomizes the eighteenth-century painter's confrontation with the complex artistic assignment of self-representation. Clark argues that, regardless of the immediate pressures and constraints at work in the process of making the portrait, David's self-image was shaped primarily by the artist's negotiation of the invisible network of rules and conventions informing this genre of painting during that period. Clark reconstructs these as a set of philosophical assumptions formulated in the context of eighteenth-century French and British debates on the nature of the self, and addressing the insistent yet elusive relation between mind and body. His analysis--itself an eloquent meditation on selfhood and representation--invites us to hear the voices of such thinkers as Rousseau, Hume, Diderot, and Priestley resonating through the mute opacity of David's painted body as it struggles to plausibly convey the idea of its own interiority.     Although Clark's groundbreaking discussion demonstrates the importance of the Enlightenment epistème of the self as a broad frame of reference for eighteenth-century self-portraiture, it also leaves certain vexing questions unanswered. Was self-portraiture the same kind of assignment for, say, Chardin painting himself in the domestic comfort of his studio in 1774 (fig. 2) as it was for David incarcerated in the Hôtel des Fermes under threat of impending execution? How did it matter that David's self-image was produced not within private aesthetic enclosure but in a very different space of physical constraint and dispossession? Did such circumstances simply exacerbate difficulties inherent in the process of self-representation, already complicated by the tensions and contradictions within the eighteenth-century discourse of the self, or did they generate altogether different kinds of difficulty? Can we see David's self-image independently of the Revolution during which it was made? That is, can we safely assume that the Revolution left Enlightenment notions of subjectivity intact? In sum, what sort of eighteenth-century self are we looking at here?     In my view, David's self-portrait is more specifically a representation of a revolutionary subject. The fact that it was the revolutionary situation that precipitated David's engagement with the genre of self-portraiture is crucial. Unlike, say, Rembrandt, David was a reluctant self-portraitist; so far as we know, he painted himself only twice in his life, both times during the Revolution. Although he later made gifts of these images to his former students, he never exhibited them in public; it seems that self-portraiture was for David above all a tool of introspection, a form of pictorial self-scrutiny taken up at moments of crisis in his career, both of them brought about by the revolutionary circumstances. In David's practice, then, this genre of painting is precisely a mode of figuring out the subject in--and of--the Revolution.     I would like, then, to propose here a model of explanation that focuses on the more immediate discursive circumstances framing David's attempt in 1794 to give himself an image. I want to suggest that it was the Revolution, as a historical and a discursive situation, that defined the ways David imagined himself while in prison, and for two reasons. First, because the shared understanding and the individual sense of the self were crucially affected by the revolutionary discourse and cultural practice. Second, because the particular circumstances in which David found himself in 1794 put pressure on his capacity to articulate himself as a subject and as an artist. Such an argument poses several questions. How do we define the revolutionary self? Where exactly do we look for its definition? What constitutes its historicity? Revolutionary subjectivity was forged in diverse debates and practices centered around the body, which was taken to be, since the Enlightenment, the material locus of the self but also a place where the self might be remodeled. These debates and practices constituted a historically specific semiotic process, in which meanings of the revolutionary experience and its relevance for both a collective and an individual identity were continually defined. The mode in which the subject was fleshed out in David's self-portrait from prison should be situated within this larger, heterogenous field of revolutionary semiosis .     Yet, although it is clear that any given set of discursive circumstances will shape the images produced within it, questions remain as to the mode in which images participate in these larger fields of meaning. How do images differ from, expand upon, exceed their discursive paradigm? What can visual culture, as such, tell us about the revolutionary self that we could not get from another kind of historical source? In the exploration of this question lies the nature of an art historian's contribution to the historical account of the French Revolution. Focusing on David's self-image, I shall examine, in formal terms, the ways it negotiated and rearticulated its broader discursive parameters. To speak of the pressure of circumstances in this image, then, is to recognize a visual and material dialogue in which its pictorial body engaged other cultural definitions of corporeality as a site of the revolutionary self.     Moreover, there is a question of gender. How does David go about pictorially securing his male identity here? As it has been argued, the Revolution engendered the self by generating the embodied scenarios--from paintings to festivals--on the basis of which French men and women could imagine themselves in relation to the new republican status quo. David was intimately involved in the formulation of these new body-based cultural scenarios of gender. How, we may ask, did this involvement affect his own imagination of himself as a body?     Nothing could give us a more vivid sense of David's own bodily experience of the Revolution than the testimony of one of his students, Etienne Delécluze. At the height of Robespierre's rule, on 8 June 1794, the thirteen-year-old Etienne witnessed the Festival of the Supreme Being. Here is his account of David in his role as a pageant master trying to shape the collective social body into an image of the Republic: At almost the same moment, everyone's attention was distracted by a voice of a man shouting as he walked very quickly: "Make way for the commissary of the Convention!" The ranks of curious observers lining the grand allée of the Tuileries parted, and we saw a representative of the people in costume, holding his two sons by the hand and moving briskly toward the cortege to urge forward a group of judges from the revolutionary tribunal marching before that of the deputies of the Convention. It was David, charged with organizing the entire festival, who waved his hat surmounted by a huge tricolor panache to make sure that the different bodies of republican officials kept proper distances from one another.     Less than two months later, quite a different spectacle presented itself to the young Etienne when, during a walk in the Tuileries with his own father, they wandered into the hall of the National Convention. It was 13 Thermidor, Year II, four days after the fall of Robespierre, and the session was stormy: The representative of the people, the painter David, was at the tribune, whence he stammered some muffled words with which he sought, in vain, to counter the rage of several colleagues determined to indict him. He was pale, and the sweat dripping from his forehead rolled down his clothes to the floor, where it left large stains.     Delécluze's description of David as the master of the symbolic corpus of the Jacobin Republic gives us a clear sense of the extent to which the Revolution usurped the physical body as a site of political signification, and of David's role in this process. It was through bodily participation in these grand political spectacles organized by David that the republican subject was expected to emerge as a "regenerated" individual self. Delécluze's description reminds us that in the festivals the actual people became a corporeal materialization of republican ideals, their own bodies thoroughly infused with revolutionary meaning. And this included David's own corpus. Appearing in the full splendor of his republican costume, designed by himself, his body is here a representation of the revolutionary subject par excellence.     In Delécluze's description we can also catch a glimpse of David as a private individual and of the degree to which the Revolution penetrated his everyday life and his bodily sense of himself. Appearing with his two sons at his side, dressed up en bons républicains , David is here the exemplary single father, an embodiment of paternal virtue. Having divorced his wife in the midst of the Revolution because of their political disagreements, David had custody of his two sons while his wife took care of their two daughters. His exemplary paternal performance, as described by Delécluze, epitomizes the exclusive world of maleness, a world both real and imaginary, in which David found himself at the peak of his revolutionary career. The Revolution made David inhabit the dominant fantasy of republican selfhood as maleness--the fantasy defined by Lynn Hunt as the "band of brothers"--which he himself helped to flesh out through paintings, festivals, and costume designs. It provided the experience through which this cultural fantasy of maleness became, in a sense, a structure of his own life.     But the reminiscing Delécluze provides us also with a poignant testimony to the radical rupture effected by Thermidor in David's relation to his own body. The striking contrast between David as the incarnation of republican decorum decked out in a costume of his own design complete with a plumed hat, and David as the inarticulate, uncontained body of a frightened man struggling with his speech defect and the hostility of his peers, encapsulates the artist's post-Thermidorian trajectory of destitution and loss. If the first passage describes how the Revolution enabled David's body to function as a symbolic representation of masculine (paternal) authority, the second one makes it clear that Robespierre's fall implied for this man not only a loss of political power and cultural prestige but also, in a sense, a loss of his own body as a means of self-articulation. Released from theatrical and cultural scaffoldings, the artist's exemplary male corpus, stammering and sweating, has simply fallen apart.     It was from the space of bodily destitution and loss so vividly evoked by Delécluze that David's prison self-portrait emerged. This self-image was produced in the wake of virtual disembodiment, an event that David experienced not only as a political loss but as a physical and psychic one as well. Thermidor marked a rift in the world of political and cultural values that had until then provided the basis for David's own, as well as others', subjective self-definition. The end of the Terror put an end to an oppressive regime, but it also put on trial a discrete period of republican culture and an entire generation of revolutionaries who had contributed to its formulation, including David. This was thus not simply a political trial but a process that cast doubt on the internalized framework of values that enabled the members of this generation to imagine themselves as revolutionary subjects. Above all, it called into question their capacity to represent these values. Speaking at the National Convention during the very session witnessed by Delécluze, Deputy Tallien, a former Terrorist who became one of the most prominent actors of the Thermidorian reaction, expressed with a brutal succinctness the subjective dimension of this political destitution when, attacking David, he declared: "We are in a moment when men, whatever talent they may have, are no longer anything . Virtue and liberty are everything."     David's prison self-portrait was, then, a form of visual negotiation of this at once political and subjective loss. It was a representation of a subject for whom embodiment itself had become a problem, for historically specific reasons and pressures that were crushingly immediate. To gain a better sense of these reasons and pressures, we shall have to take a closer look at how selfhood was imagined after Thermidor and at the ways in which David figured in the post-Thermidorian imagination--both as an individual and through his work, which formulated an aesthetic language of the body that had served to articulate the republican self.     Yet we also have to get a better sense of David's own discourse of the imprisoned self, formulated through his likeness and through other visual and textual records. For the self-portrait belongs to a larger corpus of works, letters, and other documents produced by David during his incarceration, all of which provide insight into the artist's ways of figuring out--literally and metaphorically--the meaning of his new situation. David was imprisoned twice in the course of the Thermidorian reaction: first, immediately after the coup, for almost five months, spent in the Hôtel des Fermes and then in another makeshift prison at the Hôtel du Luxembourg; and second, in the wake of the popular uprisings of Germinal and Prairial, when he was arrested together with other Jacobin deputies and spent over two months in the prison of the former Collège des Quatre Nations. Through both periods of confinement, David continued to paint and draw. Although the works he produced differ in genre, medium, degree of articulation, and individual purpose, for purposes of analysis they can be divided into two groups, corresponding to two different but related projects. One was the task of self-representation, addressed visually and textually by David's self-portrait, by a draft of his defense speech, and by his newly rediscovered study of the Abandoned Psyche . The second project had to do with giving form to the revolutionary memory and involved David's attempt to redefine himself as a history painter. This undertaking generated the Homer drawings (with which I associate the drawing Woman in a Turban ) and the medallion portraits of the Jacobin deputies imprisoned with David. The first group will be discussed in this chapter, and the second group in chapter 2.     David's prison opus marks his attempt not only to prove himself as an artist but also to recast his artistic identity. From the start he seems to have understood that the only way to save his life was to remind the authorities, and perhaps also himself, that whatever else he might have been, he was first and foremost a renowned artist. To paint and draw was to produce material evidence, if not of innocence, then at least of singular gifts and hence also of potential usefulness, even indispensability, for the Republic. But this strategy entailed David's redefinition of himself as an artist, a move that became increasingly urgent as the post-Thermidorian processes of political and cultural reaction cast in a sinister light the immediate revolutionary past in which David was intimately involved, and with which he was unequivocally identified as an artist. The Thermidorian reaction made it unavoidable for the artist to rethink his political and aesthetic past and linked this self-reflection of necessity with a broader cultural process of coming to terms with the Terror.     The multifaceted, fifteen-month-long process of settling political accounts with the Terror was triggered by the need of the Thermidorians--a nebulous group of moderate republicans, some of them former Terrorists--to define their political identity. In order to distinguish themselves from the regime of Robespierre, whose downfall they had engineered, the Thermidorians had first to establish what this regime was . Such characterization of the Terror enabled them to proceed with the crucial business of defining themselves in contradistinction to it. But the process of coming to terms with the Terror went far beyond the control of its original instigators, taking on the character of a collective political, social, and cultural reaction. As the many abuses committed by the earlier regime came to light, the press accounts, along with the imagery sold in print shops and hawked on the streets, constructed an image of Jacobin rule as a sanguinary, barbaric parenthesis in the Revolution. This created a rupture within the revolutionary history, marking also a rift within republican political culture.     The process of making sense of the Terror generated also a new understanding of the revolutionary subject. Initially the Revolution was considered the most important factor in the formation of the republican self, but after Thermidor it was construed as a traumatic event that not only formed but also damaged the self. This recognition of the traumatic effect of the Revolution was articulated across a range of discourses. The same Tallien who attacked David after Thermidor and was responsible for his arrest also played a crucial role in defining the psychic dimension of the revolutionary experience after Thermidor: he was the first to conceptualize the Terror as a political system based on the psychological mechanism of fear. Speaking at the National Convention in late August 1794--at the very moment when David was painting himself at the Hôtel des Fermes--Tallien offered a sustained analysis of both political and subjective effects of the immediate revolutionary past. In his speech, the Terror assumed the character of a profoundly unsettling political and psychological force: "Terror is a pervasive involuntary trembling, an exterior tremor that affects the most hidden fibers, that degrades man and assimilates him to beast; it is a collapse of all physical strength, a concussion [delivered] to all moral faculties; a disturbance of all ideas, an overthrow of all affections; it is a veritable disorganization of the soul ."     Tallien mobilizes here the eighteenth-century materialist discourse of the self as a body in order to discredit Robespierre's understanding of the Terror as a legitimate instrument of social justice and regeneration. What Robespierre represented as a necessary combination of virtue and intimidation became in Tallien's view a mechanism of total bodily and psychic devastation that, rather than regenerating society, in fact degraded and brutalized it. Most important, his critique of the Terror paints an image of the whole bodily apparatus of selfhood as shattered by the revolutionary experience. Tallien's speech describes the Terror as having reduced the self to ruins, leaving the revolutionary subject at a loss.     Contemporary developments in the nascent discipline of clinical psychology also point to the unsettling effects that the revolutionary experience produced in the psyche. While Tallien was conceptualizing the Terror at the Convention, Philippe Pinel was examining many different kinds of subjective "disorganization" at the Bicêtre asylum in Paris. As Jann Goldstein noted, Pinel's accounts of his investigations inaugurated the modern medical discourse of the psyche. And because of the circumstances in which it was produced, Pinel's "originative psychiatric paradigm" was ambiguously implicated in the Revolution. The institutional framework within which Pinel pursued his explorations would not have existed without the Revolution, and his project shared many conceptual premises with the idéologie , which was embraced as the official republican epistemology after Thermidor. Like the idéologues with whom he was associated, Pinel believed in the regenerative social effect of the Revolution. He declared that the Revolution "expanded the soul," and he expected the new republican system to reduce the rate of insanity as well as of less grave psychic disorders. Nevertheless, the Revolution figured in Pinel's work as a destructive factor, and he concentrated on instances of mental disorganization that in his view were directly related to revolutionary experience. His introduction of the new "moral treatment" of the insane in France was in a sense a therapy for the Revolution, which he saw as a cause of many disorders, because "it massively stimulated all the passions."     In Pinel's work, then, the Revolution emerged as a set of stimuli generating a psychic symptom, thus establishing a causal effect between the historical and the psychic experience. Whereas he believed the psyche to be dependent on the body, he also demonstrated that it was fundamentally irreducible to it, that the psyche had rules of its own that sometimes went against the grain of corporeal functioning. Without entirely rejecting the eighteenth-century materialist notions of the self, his discourse demonstrated their insufficiency, insisting on the autonomy of the psyche that anticipated Sigmund Freud's later discoveries. As reconfigured by Pinel, the relation between the body and self was governed by the psyche as a distinct faculty. This was what was "modern" about his theory and the language he developed to articulate it. What is interesting for us is that this new discourse crucially implicated the Revolution in general, and the Terror in particular, in the etiology of psychic disturbance.     This recognition of the Revolution as a trauma in the political and medical discourse was accompanied by a new discourse of a psyche devastated by the Terror that emerged in the pamphlet literature. After Thermidor there was a flood of brochures intended to settle accounts of all kinds, both political and emotional, with the immediate revolutionary past: lists of victims were published, physical and moral sufferings of the survivors were recorded, and the Terrorist crimes, real and imagined, were meticulously described. Public readings from this literature of post-Terrorist de-repression became frequent in the provincial clubs and societies. Thus these texts contributed to the formulation of the culture of mourning and working-through of historical trauma, of shared practice that sought to repair the collective post-Thermidorian psyche as it emerged shattered from the Terror.     What emerged in post-Thermidorian culture, then, was a kind of "impossible forgetting," not only in the political sense of this term, now a staple of revolutionary historiography (in, for example, works of François Furet, Mona Ozouf, and Bronislaw Baczko), but also in ways intimately related to the subjective experience of the Revolution. The more the Terror was remembered, the more difficult it proved to forget--it was becoming impossible to leave it behind and move on. The retrospective coming-to-terms with this historical trauma produced a cultural discourse of complicated mourning, a symbolic process of uneasy separation from the immediate historical past. And this complex process of mourning fostered the emergence of a new kind of revolutionary subject: a subject of loss.     It is against this new post-Thermidorian discourse of the revolutionary subject that we must consider David's attempt at self-(re)definition in 1794. David's prison productions are visual relics of the process whereby an artist-subject tried to negotiate his own separation from the Terror. Yet, if this psychosemiotic undertaking was deeply implicated in broader cultural processes--David's reimagining of his own past depending on how Robespierre's regime was reconfigured in the post-Thermidorian collective imaginary--it was also a distinct phenomenon in key respects. In the post-Thermidorian culture at large the Terror functioned as an experience impossible to forget, but for David it had become an experience impossible to remember . His entire prison corpus addresses a singular aesthetic difficulty: it speaks of a past that the artist evidently could not bring himself to disown but which he could no longer visualize. It formulates an attachment to loss that could not be aesthetically accommodated.     David's aesthetic enterprise from prison was thus traversed by a shadow of the guillotine. Such formulation inevitably evokes the shadow of imminent death under which David painted in prison--"They are going to slice through my neck, my friends," he indeed informed one of his visitors. But as used here, the guillotine's shadow has a more specific application: it designates the Terror as an aesthetic symptom in David's work. (Continues...)