The artist and the subject of this painting had one thing in common – they were both revolutionaries. The artist Jacques-Louis David was both an artistic and political revolutionary.
Artistically, David was a revolutionary in as much he condemned the French Royal Academy and its standards and the way it functioned. In the 1780’s, he continually voiced his disapproval of the rule-bound world of the Academy and Academicism. His art was different to that which had been so fashionable since the start of the eighteenth century and which was termed Rococo. Rococo was a light-hearted and often gently erotic artistic style which was well suited to the excesses of the royal regime prior to the Revolution. David’ style of painting became free of Rococo mannerisms and developed a heroic style which was heavily influenced by his study of antique sculptures during his time in Rome. His style was to become known as Neoclassicism and harked back to the Classical past which could be looked upon as a means to understanding the contemporary world. This Neoclassical art tended towards a high moral seriousness and was in complete contrast to the frivolity of Rococo art which was condemned by the French Revolutionists.
Politically, David was an active sympathiser of the French Revolution and he served on various committees and even voted for the execution of Louis XVI. Artistically he was looked upon as the foremost painter of the Revolution. As with many of the revolutionaries of that time, life was good for them, as long as the people they supported remained powerful. In David’s case he was a great friend and supporter of Maximillien Robespiere, one of the most influential figures of the French revolution and a leading light in the period which was commonly known as the Reign of Terror. However, after the fall of Robespierre and his execution in 1794, David was imprisoned. He was released on the plea of his wife, who had previously divorced him because of his Revolutionary sympathies; she being a Royalist. The couple remarried two years later.
The sitter for this painting was Jacobus Blauw. Blauw, albeit a respectable middle-class man, was also a revolutionary and one of the leaders of the Dutch Patriots. He went on to be a judge, politician and diplomat.. He was a political envoy from the Netherlands who had rebelled against the feudal relationship with Prince William of Orange and had asked France to assist in the overthrow of the government.
Although David made his name with large heroic narrative pictures on themes from antiquity, some of his finest works are portraits of contemporaries and todays featured painting is a good example. David has managed to bring authentic realism to this severe composition. When the French army invaded the Netherlands, Blauw was sent to Paris as Ministre Plénipotentiare (envoy) of the new Batavian Republic to negotiate a peace settlement with the French and get them to recognise the new republic.
David has made interesting use of contrasting colour. We have a pale grey background, a red chair and a pink cloth lying on the table as well as the turquoise coloured table covering itself. We see Blauw in a half-length portrait seated at a table writing an official document. The paper on the table before him is inscribed:
J. BLAUW, minister Plénipotenttiaire aux Etats Généraux des provinces unies.
Blauw sits upright at the table with his short-cropped powdered hair and this contrasts in style to the powdered wigs which were fashionable with the aristocracy of the time. He has a lively expression on his face as he looks up at us with quill in hand almost as if we have interrupted him as he writes his letter. This supposed interruption of course gives the artist the chance to paint Blauw in a full-face view. He is dressed simply, which is befitting a republican. His blue coat is of a plain design and around his neck he has a soft white cravat. The brass buttons of his coat glisten with a hint of red as the light falls upon them. It is probably difficult to see it in the attached picture but if you look closely you will see that the artist has inscribed his name “L.DAVID 4” in the folds of Blauw’s brown coat which seems to have slipped off the back of the chair. The “4” refers to the date, year four of the French Revolution, i.e. 1795.
Bluaw was delighted with the portrait and in his letter to David he expresses his satisfaction:
“..Mes voeux sont enfin satisfaits, mon cher David. Vous m’avez fait revivre sur la toile..”
(My wishes were finally satisfied, my dear David. You made me live again on the canvas)
The sitter obviously knew the artist for the letter continues:
“…j’ai voulu posséder un de vos chefs d’oeuvre, et j’ai voulu plus encor avoir dans ce portrait un monument éternel de mon étroite liaison avec le premier peintre de l’Europe..”
(I wanted to own one of your masterpieces, and I wanted to have more in this portrait an eternal monument of my close association with the first painter of Europe)
We must believe that Blauw was aware of David’s revolutionary activities and that will have won the admiration of a fellow revolutionary. The two had another thing in common; they both suffered for their great causes.
I love this portrait. I love the way Blauw is portrayed – dignified and assertive. He is almost too beautiful to be a man. The way David has portrayed his sitter lends us to believe that the artist respected him and that there was a bond between the two men, a kind of reverence between fellow revolutionaries.