Jacques Louis David, a neo-classicist, felt that it was the artist’s moral duty to paint elevated subjects and that these subjects should be rooted in ancient notions of virtue. The compelling nature of David’s paintings is sometimes considered as propaganda for the cause of the French Revolution.
The present painting, “The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons” done in 1789, speaks of self-sacrifice for a higher cause. It narrates the tale of King Brutus (not the assassin of Julius Caesar) who rid Rome of the tyrannical king Tarquin. But his sons allied with Tarquin and conspired against Roman liberty. So Brutus had his sons killed. The picture depicts the body of one of his sons being brought to him after the assassination.
For the grim and terrible event depicted in the painting, David adopted a radical compositional format. The main character, Brutus, is placed at the extreme left, plunged into a deep shadow. His body is tense and knotted as he broods over the consequences of his act, the death warrant clenched tightly in his hand. On the other side of the image, the inconsolable women are brightly illuminated. David skillfully illuminated the grief and allegorized the suffering, fear and pain of his figures. He shows the mother, accusing and suffering; her daughter beside her, hands raised defensively; and finally the younger daughter sunk down in pain at her impotence. Another figure at the right edge of the painting personifies grief.
In the shadow sits the “hero” with the dark mien of a thinker. His features are stoic and harsh,his left hand is holding the written accusation in a claw-like grip, and he is seated in the shadow of a Roman statue, the symbol of the state to which the sacrifice is being made. Behind him, the son whose life has fallen victim to the requirements of the state is being borne in. A column strictly divides the theatrical arrangement into the representation of the dark force of destiny and the obvious emotional effect of the event.
This isn't one of my fave Davids (all the women's heads are too small; the mother's arm, clutching her daughter, has no tension in it) ... for an image ...