Published: October 17, 2006
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is presenting a special exhibition featuring the recent acquisition and first public display of French artist Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye, 1815, along with works by 11 artists illustrating the portrait’s historical context — all drawn from LACMA’s permanent collection. “Jacques-Louis David: Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye, a Rediscovered Masterpiece.”
In June, LACMA purchased the painting at auction with funds provided by the Ahmanson Foundation; it had been in the sitter’s family since its execution.
Organized by J. Patrice Marandel, LACMA chief curator of European painting and sculpture, the exhibition introduces David’s portrait to Los Angeles audiences. In addition, the exhibition features works by Louis-Léopold Boilly, Baron François-Pascal-Sim Gérard, Adélaide Labille-Guiard, Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Léon-Mathieu Cocherau and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres — all pupils of David — as well as works by their contemporaries, Joseph-Marie Vien, Robert-Jacques Lefèvre, Joseph-Benoit Suvée François Masson and Jacques Sablet.
A supporter of the French Revolution, David introduced in his compositions moral values that resonated with the political ideas of the revolutionary period. His painting style, remarkable for its clarity and accomplished craftsmanship, offered an alternative to the more playful and decorative rococo style prevalent in the late Eighteenth Century. In David’s portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye — a lawyer from a wealthy family long-established in Paris and manager of David’s affairs — the artist analyzes the subtleties of human nature. Painted with striking directness and simplicity, the portrait is rendered with great economy: his dark jacket and gray-blue vest set off his elaborate white cravat, and enhance his engaging expression. A glimmer of irony brightens his eyes, the knowing gaze of an intelligent man who had been able to survive the political upheavals of the French Revolution.
Along with David, many artists of the period reacted to the new fashion, intellectual aspirations and political changes affecting French society during the revolution. While portraits of the earlier part of the Eighteenth Century reflected the rank and social position of their sitters, later portraits often depicted members of the emerging bourgeoisie without grandiose accoutrements, such as the anonymous subject of Robert-Jacques Lefèvre’s “Portrait of a Woman Holding a Pencil and a Drawing Book,” 1808. David’s portrait of Delahaye, painted in the last days of the Empire, shows the culmination of this trend.
For 40 years, David kept his command over the arts, not only through his political choices and the high visibility of his most famous commissions, but also through his mentoring of several generations of artists. For many of them, the passage through his studio was a defining moment in their careers. David’s teaching methods were both traditional and innovative, and intended to develop the particular qualities of each artist. One of the most noted of his students is Ingres, who is represented in the exhibition by his severe “Portrait of Thomas Church,” 1816.
This exhibition will remain on view indefinitely.
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