Painting prospered now, for the country was prospering, and patrons could pay. Napoleon paid well, for he was playing to a gallery of centuries, and hoped to prolong their attention by the blandishments of literature and art. His admiration of Augustus’ Rome and Louis XIV’s Paris inclined him to favor classic norms of art—line, order, logic, proportion, design, reason, restraint; but the keenness of his senses, the range of his imagination, and the force of his passions gave him some understanding of the Romantic movement that was rising to liberate individualism, feeling, originality, imagination, mystery, and color from the bondage of tradition, conformity, and rule. So he made classic David his court painter, but he kept a corner of his favor for the sentiment of Gérard, the idyls of Prud’hon, and the explosive colors of Gros.
Jacques-Louis David took naturally to a patron who called himself a consul, who for a time tolerated a tribunate of popular orators, and who disguised his decrees as senatus consulta. He visited the triumphant Corsican soon after the 18th Brumaire. Napoleon won him at once by greeting him as the French Apelles, but gently reproved him for spending so much talent on ancient history; were there not memorable events in modern—even in contemporary—history? “However,” he added, “do what you please; your pencil will confer celebrity upon any subject you may select. For every historical picture you may choose to paint you shall receive 100,000 francs.”6 This was convincing. David sealed the pact with Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (1801), which showed a handsome warrior with a charming leg, on a magnificent horse that appears to be galloping up a rocky mountainside—one of the most brilliant pictures of the age.
David had voted for the execution of Louis XVI; he must have winced when Napoleon made himself emperor and restored all the pomp and power of monarchy. But he went to see his new master crowned; the fascination of that scene overcame his politics; and after three years of intermittent devotion, he commemorated the event in the pictorial masterpiece of the period. Almost a hundred characters were portrayed in The Coronation of Napoleon (1807), even Madame Mère Letizia, who was not there; most of them faithfully, except for Cardinal Caprara, who complained that David had revealed him bald, without his usual wig. Everyone else was pleased. Napoleon, after examining the picture for half an hour, raised his hat to the artist, saying, “C’est bien, très bien. David, je vous salue.”7
David was not merely the official court painter; he was the unchallenged leader of French art in his time. Everyone of account came to him to sit for a portrait—Napoleon, Pius VII, Murat, even Cardinal Caprara, bewigged.8 His pupils—especially Gérard, Gros, Isabey, Ingres—spread his influence even while deviating from his style. As late as 1814 English visitors to the Louvre were surprised to find young artists copying not the Renaissance masters, but the pictures of David.9 A year later he was banished by the restored Bourbons. He went to Brussels, where he prospered with portraits. He died in 1825, having lived fully in all his seventy-seven years.
Of his pupils we leave Ingres (1770–1867) to later years; we bow in passing to Gérard and Guérin for their illuminating portraits; we stay longer with Antoine-Jean Gros because of his interesting passage through the styles. We have watched him at Milan, painting, or imagining, Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole; here, so soon, classic David’s heir is flirting with romance. Napoleon rewarded Gros’s idolatry with a military commission that enabled the young artist to see war at close view. Like Goya a few years later, he saw not so much the fighting as the suffering. In The Plague at Jaffa (1804) he showed Napoleon touching the sores of a victim, but also he showed the terror and hopelessness of men, women, and children stricken by an obscene and undiscriminating fate. InThe Battle of Eylau (1808) he pictured not the battle but the field stricken with the dying and the dead. He felt the living warmth of Rubens’ colors, and poured into his paintings a flesh-and-blood vitality that raised the Romantic spirit of post-Napoleonic France. Then, feeling that he had betrayed his banished master, he tried to recapture in his work the calm of the classic style. He failed, and—lost and forgotten in an age wild with Hugo, Berlioz, Géricault and Delacroix—he succumbed to a melancholy that dried up in him the sap and love of life. On June 25, 1835, aged sixty-four, he left his home, walked out toward Meudon, and drowned himself in a tributary of the Seine.
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823) advanced the Romantic surge by preferring ideal beauty to reality, goddesses to gods, and Correggio to Raphael. He recognized with David the primacy of line, but felt that without color line was dead. He was feminine except in his love of women; his meditative tenderness and amorous sensitivity could forgive all faults that came in a gracious form. As youngest of thirteen children he was harassed with poverty in Cluny, and developed hesitantly; however, the local monks saw him drawing and painting, and persuaded a bishop to finance Pierre’s art study in Dijon. He did well there, but, aged twenty, he married a goddess who was soon transformed into a rasping shrew. He won a scholarship, went to Rome without his wife, courted Raphael, then Leonardo, and finally surrendered to Correggio.
In 1789 he rejoined his wife, moved to Paris, and soon found himself stranded in a revolutionary chaos that had no time or taste for his Cupids and Psyches; obstinately he continued to paint them—with a loving delicacy that seemed to caress the flesh with the brush. He ate by producing bill heads, miniatures, and commercial illustrations. After ten years of such servitude he won from the Directory a commission to paint a picture—Wisdom Descending to Earth—which caught the attention of General Bonaparte. Later the First Consul centered on David, and could spare only transient favors to Prud’hon; Josephine, however, sat to him for the portrait that hangs in the Louvre. Meanwhile, tortured with monogamy, he and his wife agreed to part.
Not till 1808, when he was fifty, did he win acclaim. In that year he embodied his voluptuous dreams in The Rape of Psyche, and then balanced it with Justice and Vengeance Pursuing Crime. Impressed, Napoleon nominated him to the Legion of Honor, and gave him an apartment in the Sorbonne. In the next apartment the love-hungry painter found another artist, Constance Mayer, who became his mistress, housekeeper, and the solace of his old age. In 1821 Constance, apparently distracted with religious qualms, killed herself. The shock overwhelmed Prud’hon. In 1823 he died, almost unnoticed in the excitement of that Romantic movement which he had forwarded by going back from David to Watteau, and renewing the French worship of beauty and grace.