The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons

Jacques-Louis David, in the painting The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, exemplifies the French preoccupation with Roman thought, art, and history. His depiction of this family tragedy represents how David interpreted the gender roles during Roman times and, in context of his contemporary history, how he thinks that these values ought to be embraced by the French. Consideration of the brooding figure of Brutus and of the emotional women highlight the necessity for both parties to make sacrifices for the benefit of the republic, yet in their different reactions to the dead sons, the role of women and men in such an act are shown to be different. David uses this event as a commentary on how French citizens ought to follow the example of Roman virtues.

David was especially well known for his painting of historical scenes. His artwork was decidedly neo-classical and some scholars argue that his pre-revolutionary works have no tie in to modern day of the late 1700’s. Two of David’s most recognizable pieces, The Oath of the Horatii and The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, were done prior to the French Revolution and are thought to lie outside of the definition of modernist artwork, which often commented on social and political matters of the current day[1]. Therefore, scholars argue that there is no way that these two paintings, the Brutus in particular, could be representative of Revolutionary ideas. Baudelaire, in The Painter of Modern Life, argues that the artist’s subject defines modernism. Therefore, for many modernists, the subject chosen was from the immediate present[2]. Carrier uses this definition by Baudelaire to explain how David could have been a modernist, since many of the current issues from 1780’s France could have easily been depicted in an allegorical representation of the past.[3] This is not too far of a leap, since David did become a decidedly modernist painter during the Revolution with depictions such as the Death of Marat and The Coronation of Napoleon. Therefore, the painting The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, was painted in a transitional time between the end of his historical scene painting and the beginning of his modernist phase. Therefore it is entirely plausible to interpret this particular painting as an allegorical representation of pre-revolutionary France using past stories. Carrier defines this as visual allegory, using a scene from the past to allude to the present[4].

With this being so, this painting should be interpreted with the current events of pre-revolutionary France in mind. David was commissioned in 1787 to create a work of art for the 1789 Salon. He proposed two possible subjects that he would be willing to work on for the Salon to D’Angiviller. One of which was the story of Coriolanus, in reference to the legendary Roman general Caius Martius, who set out to seek revenge on Rome after being exiled[5]. Coriolanus, Caius Martius, was in favor of the common people having power and for the removal of the overpowered elite. Because of this, legend has it, that he was exiled and removed from any position of influence and the Roman government remained in tact. The actual scene that David proposed for his painting was of the moment when Coriolanus was restrained by his family from marching on Rome in a fit of rage and revenge[6]. This painting would have emphasized the importance of the family over that of the country. This subject matter would have served as propaganda against the ousting of the current government and suggested that the role of men should be in the family, not in politics. This is the story that was chosen by the French government to be commissioned. It would have stood as an example of French power and of the kind of relationship that the revolutionaries should have with their family, choosing them over the revolution, which seemed to be building up.

            David, however, chose to change this selected subject in favor of the story of Brutus ordering the deaths of his sons. He worked privately on this piece for two years without D’Angiviller learning of the changed subject. As Warren Roberts bluntly states, “David’s decision can only be called a deliberate act of defiance” [7]. This painting shares a much different message than the proposed Coriolanus painting would have had. Instead a scene where the head of the family chose his family, David depicted a scene where Brutus put the safety and wellbeing of the republic over everything, including family. Not only is the role of family different but, David chose a main figure, Brutus, who had already successfully ousted the Kings of Rome, where Coriolanus had failed. The story of Lucius Junius Brutus would have been well known the educated elite of France. They would have been aware of his role in ousting the last of the Tarquinian Kings of Rome. Brutus is reported to have taken power from the King after the rape of Lucretia by one of the princes. He quickly seized power and exiled the old rulers. He then is known to have set up the Roman Republic and to have served as one of the first co-consuls in said republic. His sons, however, plotted to overthrow Brutus and restore the exiled king to power. Hearing of this, and with the Roman tradition for this treachery being death, Brutus was placed in a position where he had to order his own sons to death. It is the result of this particular story that David chose to represent instead of the story of Coriolanus[8]. Brutus is seen as a revolutionary figure that did everything within his power to ensure the continuation of a form of fair governing power. According to Chua, Brutus became a figure for revolutionaries to look to with dutiful respect.

Since Brutus was a figure who had been symbolically adopted by revolutionaries of the past, he serves as a figure, which represents exactly the opposite of Coriolanus. As such, the end result is almost completely opposite of what the government commissioned of David. It is this specific change in subject matter, on top of the idea that David was a modernist painter, that leads to the argument that he is conscious of the figures in the painting and he intended them to be interpretations on how revolutionaries, and their families, ought to be in France during this particularly turbulent time in history. David would have been fully aware of this image’s ability to cause political controversy[9].

David purposefully did a number of things with this painting to achieve his final product. First, he took artistic liberty on the depiction of the entire scene. Where there is a record that Brutus did order the execution of his sons, there is no literary source where Brutus is seen to return home or if this particular scene even ever occurred. In fact, the likelihood of this particular event occurring is very slim. As such, this painting is entirely from David’s imagination. He has complete artistic liberty to place figures as he sees fit in order to convey a particular message. The original concept of this scene, known from early sketches, shows Brutus in a public place, sometimes with the women of the family, witnessing the actual moment of beheading.

David’s first idea had been to show Brutus dispassionately witnessing the execution of     his two sons, but he then decided to shift the scene from the public to the private and   show brutus in his own home. So the Brutus, like the Horatii, became a painting about the            conflict between duty to the nation and the love of the family, and also about how men   and women respond differently to such a dilemmna. Brutus’ extreme patriotism had long been a recommended subject for painters, and he provided a very potent symbol of        unflinching devotion to the state. Brutus acts as the main figure of conflict. [10]

If David had gone through with placing this scene in the public sphere, the tension between Brutus’ duty to the republic and that of his family is ignored. By taking liberty, and moving the scene into the domestic sphere, David really sheds light onto the conflict between duty to the state and devotion to the family[11]. David used his own imagination to depict this scene based on historical events. By doing so, he used a Roman scene to make a clear statement about the French revolutionaries and add propaganda to fuel the upcoming Revolution.

By moving the scene from the public world to the domestic, David had to incorporate new elements to help add commentary to the piece. The domestic sphere is emphasized by the sewing basket present on the table, almost dead center in the painting[12]. The arm of the mother, the body of the daughter, and the chair on the other side of table frame the basket in. This framing, along with the dramatic lighting on the right half of the composition, make it impossible to ignore the basket, the main symbol of domesticity. Any doubt that David is not commenting on gender roles is refuted by the mere presence of the basket.

Knowing of David’s intentions, the way in which Brutus is displayed can be interpreted as the way in which men ought to act in Revolutionary France. He has a duality about him, where he seems to be in two moments of time simultaneously[13]. His expression is that of a man caught in a difficult decision, that of deciding whether to execute his sons or not. He holds in his had the order to execute his sons, and, yet, he is present in the home after the order has been completed. This conflicting duality presents an opportunity to inspect the man’s role both within the family, and within a political setting.

This being so, the whole scene points to the Roman idea that political responsibility trumps familial responsibility. Brutus, though appearing in the domestic world, is set apart from the rest of his family and cast in a dark shadow. Even his positioning near the door and away from the rest of his family alienates him from the home and indicates that his more important role is outside of the home. The fact that he appears underneath the statue of the goddess Roma also points to weight of his responsibility outside of the home. His presence is noted, but easily overlooked within the home. Brutus’ main role seems to be that of a political one, that he must do whatever it takes to preserve the republic, even killing his own children, who had been caught in a conspiracy to restore the Roman Kings. Knowing that David chose this particular subject matter and then casts Brutus in such a dark light and under political symbols, he is calling for men to be more active revolutionaries. That they ought to put aside their fear for the wellbeing of their family, and instead do whatever it takes to put the safety and health of the nation first. That their responsibility lies first to the nation as a whole.

            To help understand the role of women in pre-revolutionary France, one must look at the philosophy of Jean-Jacque Rousseau on women’s role in society. Rousseau, in response to Montesquieu’s model of the republican condition of women, updated the model and commented on the specific world that women occupy during this time in France. He explains that citizenship in France is a matter of social condition, and that the roles of men and women have to balance each other. That to have citizens in the society, there have to be those who are not citizens. That falls onto the women of the society. But then, where is their place? Rousseau expressed that “the answer to this question is that there must be women in the private sphere so that there can be citizen in the public sphere”. The woman then, according to Rousseau is the true figure of modernity. [14] David, is seen to be representing women in accordance with this philosophy, that women ought to occupy the domestic sphere so that men can occupy the public.

In the painting The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, David presents the women and the men in these respective roles. Unlike the solitary figure of Brutus, the women are grouped together, and are presented on the opposite end of the room as the door. Brutus was placed near the door and was leaning towards the exit, showing that his societal place was outside of the home, the male does not rule over the domestic sphere. The women then, appearing opposite of Brutus, and behind the sewing basket, represent the role that David thinks that women have in Revolutionary France, the same idea that Rousseau put forward. Their role, according to David’s work, is within the home. Where Brutus is shown with a “stony-faced” expression, his wife and daughter’s are depicted in great grief and their faces project the emotion, which Brutus surely feels, but cannot show. Since men have such an important role outside of the home, women have to make up for the gap that they leave. Thus their reactions are fully appropriate, since their most important place has to do with their family.

            David wanted for a more Romanized role for these women. That with his work, he expressed his belief that role of women was the most important within the home and that they made the greatest impact in the domestic world. That with women taking on the sole role within the family, men were able to take on more responsibility outside of the home and work towards bettering the nation.

            This very classical story full of Roman virtues is applicable to the period surrounding the French Revolution. David used this Roman story of Brutus as a way of covertly expressing his opinions on gender roles in France as well as a way to quietly add fodder to the mounting Revolution. He was able to mask his political views by placing them in the guise of a historical painting. Because of his later modernist style, however, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons can be seen to apply to the context of the current French political scene. As such, the figures in the painting, once solely acting as pieces in a Roman story, can be interpreted as contemporary French ideas. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Catherine Larrere, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Women and Citizenship.” History of European      Ideas 37, no. 2 (June 2011): 218-222.

Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (London: Phaidon Press, 1863).

David Carrier, “The Political Art of Jacques-Louis David and his Modern-Day American        Successors,” Art History 26, no. 5(November 2003): 730-751 ArtSource (accessed          December 2, 2014).

Dominique Godineau, The Women of Paris and their French Revolution (Berkeley:            University of California Press, 1998).

Dorothy Johnson, Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis (Princeton: Princeton       University Press, 1993), 68-69.

 ——-,  Jacques-Louis David: New Perspectives (Cranbury: Rosemont Publishing and      Printing Corp., 2006), 76-78, 108-115.

Kevin Chua, “In the Shadow of David’s Brutus,” Representations 121, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 107- 139.

L. D. Ettlinger,  “Jacques-Louis David and Roman Virtue,” Journal of Royal Society of       Arts 115.5126 (1967): 105-123.

Lisa Beckstrand,  Deviant Women of the French Revolution and the Rise of             Feminism(Cranbury: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009), .

Simon Lee, David (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999), 119-127.  

Thomas Crow, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale     University Press, 1995).

——-, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Pairs (New Haven: Yale       University Press, 1985),102-109. 

Warren Roberts, Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the

            French Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989),          

            32-45.


[1] David Carrier, “The Political Art of Jacques-Louis David and his Modern-Day American Successors,” Art History 26, no. 5(November 2003): 730-751 ArtSource (accessed December 2, 2014).

[2] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (London: Phaidon Press, 1863).

[3] Carrier, “The Political art of Jacques-Louis David and his Modern-Day American     Successors.”

[4] Carrier, “The Political art of Jacques-Louis David and his Modern-Day American     Successors.”

[5] Warren Roberts, Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the           

            French Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989),          

            32-45.

[6] Simon Lee, David (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999), 119-127. 

[7] Roberts, Revolutionary Artist, 33

[8] Kevin Chua, “In the Shadow of David’s Brutus,” Representations 121, no. 1 (Winter 2013):       107-139.

[9] Lee, David, 119-127.

[10] Lee, David, 119-127.

[11] Lee, David, 122

[12] Thomas Crow, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale             University Press, 1995).

[13] Dorothy Johnson, Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis (Princeton: Princeton    University Press, 1993), 68-69.

[14] Catherine Larrere, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Women and Citizenship.” History of European   Ideas 37, no. 2 (June 2011): 218-222.

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