Museum Home Past Exhibitions Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile

February 1–April 24, 2005 at the Getty Center

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By 1794 the French Revolution had reached a fever pitch. Violent riots were common, and thousands of real and suspected foes of the Revolution were being imprisoned and sent to the guillotine. Moderates staged a coup, executing firebrand leader Maxmilien Robespierre and jailing many of his supporters, including David. The period of terror subsided; a new elected government emerged, and France began to erase the trauma of the recent past.

Learn more about David's involvement in the Revolution.

Read a letter of self-defense written by David in prison.

David's imprisonment stripped him of his powerful political and artistic role and left him facing an uncertain future. He renounced politics and decided to dedicate himself to his art.

This self-portrait was David's attempt to reveal the artist behind the political figure. He painted it in prison using paints, brushes, and a mirror that his students brought to his cell. The painter grips his palette with force, insisting on his identity as an artist. His fierce gaze is at odds with his upright pose at the edge of his chair and the large jacket that overwhelms his form.

David suffered from a speech impediment made worse by a benign tumor in his cheek. He was sensitive about his tumor, which was mocked by his political enemies, and in this self-portrait he hides it in shadow.

David gave this painting away to a student, perhaps because it reminded him of his close call with the guillotine. He never painted another self-portrait.

Self-Portrait / David