A predominance of our mental imagery of the French Revolution comes from the thrilling, turbulent Delacroix and Géricault paintings from that time. The Morgan Library is exhibiting a collection of drawings from the Louvre that depict the period around the French Revolution, entitled David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre, September 23 — December 31. The era produced an abundance of superbly skilled artists who were able to imaginatively capture an important political shift, even if they might rather have been painting pastoral landscapes. Their contributions show how artists are coaxed into journalistic service, essentially reporting their times’ events.
Jacques-Louis David is known for a clinical precision of technique, and his satisfying balanced compositions, often depicting allegorical versions of historical figures. So it is exhilarating to see his drawing of Napoleon donning the crown which he had just snatched from the Pope’s head—as close to a paparazzi shot as we’re likely to get. In the end, David scrapped this idea in favor of a safer depiction of the crowning of Empress Josephine.
The artists of that period come acress as superbly confident and skilled, but in this exhibition we get to see sketches and preliminary compositions that were stepping stones to the final artworks. One of David’s drawings, The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines, contains patches of other paper, showing how extensive the reworking process was. Some of Delacroix’s sketches favor the bold dynamics of the composition over verisimilitude.
Show organizers Louis-Antoine Prat and Jennifer Tonkovich no doubt chose the 80 works in the show (between 1790 and 1852) for a balance in subject matter, even within the framework of the revolution. But assuming it’s a reflection of the general oeuvre from that period, we can see that those artists had been concerned with technical mastery, were intrigued with the wild and animals (including some marvelous sketches of big cats and horses), and many obviously would have preferred being peacetime artists, as evidenced in François-Marius Granet’s wonderful landscapes of Rome in silhouette, and the Seine draped in fog. They nod to the later 19th century artists’ shift towards modernism, almost more Asian in compositional attitude than French. And yet they recorded their time for posterity, for us to relish and parse.