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0023 Satish Padiyar, Last Words: David's Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces (1824). Subjectivity, Death, and Postrevolutionary Late Style

RIHA Journal 0023 | 01 June 2011

Last Words: David's Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces (1824). Subjectivity, Death, and Postrevolutionary Late Style

Satish Padiyar

Peer-review and editing organized by:

The Courtauld Institute of Art, London


Sarah Betzer, Susan Siegfried


Completed as he was approaching death in 1825, Jacques-Louis David's final refractory history painting is an intricate summation of a life in politics and painting. The article attempts to re-interpret the canvas in relation to the dual problem of 'late style' and the condition of exile. I argue that this history painting invokes the metaphor of non-sex for the condition of exile; and as a late gesture stages an anomalous return to a pre-lapsarian eighteenth century. The painting, I conclude, reveals less the transcendent subjectivity of an artist approaching biological death, than the critical disarming of a once-radical neoclassical aesthetic itself, in its tragic late phase.


The force of subjectivity in late works is the irascible gesture with which it leaves them. It bursts them asunder, not in order to express itself but, expressionlessly, to cast off the illusion of art. Of the works it leaves only fragments behind, communicating itself, as if in ciphers, only through the spaces it has violently vacated.
Adorno, "Late Style in Beethoven"

Farewell to Painting

  1. If it is true that the nearer one comes to death the more vividly distant memories are stirred up, then David's last public history painting, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces, completed in Brussels some twenty months before his death in December 1825, should constitute a veritable Proustian archive (fig. 1).

  2. As David was drawing to his death, he decided to exhibit the work to audiences in Restoration Paris and in politically neutral Brussels, where he had settled in exile for almost a decade. When it was exhibited in Paris in the spring of 1824, the public and critics were astonished that at the age of seventy-six David's ambition and his painterly virtuosity was undiminished.1

1 Jacques-Louis David, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces, 1824, oil on canvas, 308 x 262 cm. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels (© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels [dig. photo: J. Geleyns /])

  1. Although one contemporary scholar has hailed Mars Disarmed as David's "ultimate achievement, almost superhuman", the painting has been relatively ignored in the scholarly literature on David.2 One reason for its neglect is that until very recently David's work during the period of Empire and then exile in Brussels (1804-1825) has been viewed as aesthetically eccentric, politically retrograde and art historically insignificant.3 Mars Disarmed has in particular been viewed as testifying to the historic exhaustion of French neoclassicism's moral or utopic force, an argument in this essay I will seek to illuminate rather than contradict.4 Yet even with the remarkable recent rehabilitation of David's later work – all the major late works have now received extensive and probing critical attention – Mars Disarmed remains sorely under-interpreted, if frequently acknowledged as the most significant work of his later period.5 As such, it constitutes something like a final frontier of modern David studies.6

  2. Of this (in the words of Anita Brookner) "terrifyingly large" work, David wrote revealingly to his former pupil Jean-Antoine Gros in October 1823 "it is my final farewell to painting"; a statement he was shortly to go public with.7 As such, the painting openly announces, and reckons with, a certain end, at once inextricably personal and cultural. Cultural, because it marks the end of the authority of the aesthetic of radicalized neoclassicism begun by David and his compeers in the 1780s: 1824, famously, is the year in which Delacroix's Massacre of Chios and Constable's The Hay Wain proclaim themselves at the Paris Salon as the future of a modern art.8 Personal, because it announces the death of a certain subject, or self, Jacques-Louis David, whose once-radical political and sexual identity had been definitively forged in the Parisian political arena of 1793 and 1794, known as the Terror, and whose biological life was now rapidly coming to an end.9 "It is in the signifier and insofar as the subject articulates in a signifying chain that he comes up against the fact that he may disappear from the chain of what he is', declared Jacques Lacan in his Seminar of 1959-60, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis.10 For Lacan, the subject and its language are destinally intertwined: we are both formed and deformed – and finally dismissed – through our constitutive and terminal relation to the chains of signifiers (verbal or visual) through which we live, and, ultimately, apprehend death.11 My argument here is that David approached his death in Mars Disarmed as the dismantling of the aesthetic that bore his name.

  3. It is a paradoxical work. For all that it is motivated by senescence and the consciousness of approaching death – and the canvas is, I will argue, death-infused – it is not what we have come to expect of a 'late' work.12 Instead of profundity, everything is on the surface here: the first thing that strikes us is the showy brilliance of its polished surface. Rather than a 'late' ego-dissolving dissolution of form, ego boundaries in Mars Disarmed are powerfully delineated and insistently marked as gendered. The work, in fact, insistently strains to present itself as youthful, not least through its claritas, or aesthetic of transparency. Following T.J. Clark's astute observation, such transparency might be thought of as the trace of the ethical in David's painting, and in this last work he refuses (contra Brookner) to abandon it.13 And yet, we will see, the final assertion of an ethical aesthetic is rendered ironical by the very theme that David chooses to paint, that of the disarming or the dismantling of heroic ethical action; and David's working processes of revision, erasure and narrative blockages end by producing a 'late' dissonant and disenchanted image of the mythological and allegorical theme of 'Peace' that is the ostensible subject of the work. Several endings are alluded to in Mars Disarmed and David works at them all: the ending of an aesthetic, the termination of David as a powerful cultural producer, and the ending of a life of political struggle with the end of the Revolutionary wars in Europe that culminated in the deadly fallout of Waterloo.14


A Schizophrenic Subject in Exile

  1. For the French Revolutionaries of David's generation, 'last words' were critical opportunities for self-definition.15 For the group of exiles who had settled in Brussels, ex-regicide members of the National Convention of which David was perhaps the most prominent and famous member, the matter of last words was urgent. In his fine study Mémoire de la Terreur, the historian Sergio Luzzatto provides a collective portrait of the community of exiles in the 1820s.16 Luzzato reminds us that in the immediate aftermath of the Terror there were two sequences of the fabrication of Revolutionary memory: the first was the post-thermidorean moment, circa 1795; the second was the critical decade of the 1820s. Critical, because it was then that survivors who had lived through the Terror began one by one to meet their biological deaths. The consciousness that they were dying threw an entire community of exiled regicides into a profusion of memoir writing. Luzzatto's Mémoire substantially draws upon this extraordinary archive of memoirs, some of which were published in the 1820s, but most of which had to await posthumous publication from the Third Republic onwards. What emerges forcefully is that the ex-Revolutionaries – these men who had attempted to change the world – had an urgent and acute sense of the fragility of their posterity.17

  2. Once-powerful, these men in their seventies, who were still being branded as blood-sucking pariahs, were the dispossessed of the modern world. In some sense their memories of a radical agency were all that sustained them as a community. Walking arm in arm in the public parks of Brussels, these ancient members of the National Convention spoke lowly with one another of things near and distant. In the afternoons they would meet at the Café de Mille Colonnes. Evenings were frequently spent at the theatre – David was particularly fond of this.18 Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacères, Emmanuel-Joseph Sièyes, Antoine de Thibaudeau, Charles-Jean-Marie Alquier, David: what did they speak of, whisper to each other, remember of their pasts, and how?

  3. To begin with the unspeakable, Robespierre. Against the still powerful cultural spectre of Robespierre as a blood-loving tiger, each has to excommunicate the Robespierre that continues to haunt them. To kill the Robespierre in oneself became a ritual act of self-cleansing, it being one of the functions of these written memoirs repeatedly to enact.19 Having expelled the ghost, they can begin to speak of the Revolution, live it a second time. Self-justification, obstinate shoring up of the old partisan political identities, a certain nostalgic return to the ancien régime as a place or a space before they took on the burdens of political responsibility; the memoirs console them as they write towards death.

  4. Now David, it must be said, refuses this mode of self-reckoning. When in 1816, as a regicide and supporter of Napoleon's 'Acte Additionel', David was forced to leave French territory and decided on Brussels as his new home, he at once posited it as a free space, uncontaminated by the noisy past. In an oft-cited letter of May 1817 to his pupil Jean-Antoine Gros, David deliberately proclaims his newfound youth: "Moi je travaille comme si je n'avais que trente ans; j'aime mon art comme je l'aimais à seize ans, et je mourrai, mon ami, en tenant le pinceau. Il n'y a pas de puissance, telle malveillante q'elle soit, qui peut m'en priver: j'oublie toute la terre […]."20 This fantasy of return to a period of his life before the Revolution – specifically to that free youthful one of his Roman sojourn of 1775 to 1780 – simply fails to acknowledge his early political radicalism, the traumatic events of Year Two and its descent into violence, the loss of Jacobin power during the Directory and the installation of an authoritarian Empire. David's blithe assertions seem unconvincing to us, and not only because they contradict both ancient and modern understandings of the self in exile as painful, tragic and wrenching.21 For even if David in Brussels is for the first time free of any constraining external agent who might deprive him of the newfound pleasure in his brush – free now from Napoleon, from the old authoritarian Academy – can he nevertheless control the brush, or the crayon, that continues to be haunted by the failure of his radical Revolutionary hopes?

  5. In his exile David paints a series of stunningly immediate portraits: in this way he makes for himself a new little community.22 In a major turn to what has been described by Susan Siegfried as "fantasies now formed around libidinally charged situations rather than devotion to a public cause", he produces in this second flush of youth the canvases Cupid and Psyche (1817), Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis (1818), Anger of Achilles (1819), and finally Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces, begun in 1821.23 With the possible exception of Anger of Achilles David in these works has largely given up on attempting to depict the 'we', the community or the group, in favour of the 'I', the isolated 'bourgeois' couple. Such a renewal of creative energy in the service of an early-nineteenth-century bourgeois 'domestic' ideal, dressed up as myth, might appear to lend credence to his self-proclaimed forgetting of his political past; the passage to Brussels being instantly and insistently reparative. Were it not for the corpus of small, intense drawings that David in his idle moments produced in numbers. As if work had been left unfinished – or unfinishable – many of the late drawings, such as Composition with Five Figures (fig. 2), can be said to dramatize, in their weird invocation of the collective, the fissuring and fragmentation of the once-transcendent communitas that David had so powerfully envisioned, and which he had been forced to leave behind in ruins.24

Jacques-Louis David, A Scene of Mourning (Composition with Five Figures), 1819, graphite and black chalk on paper, 13.1 x 20 cm. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Aschenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts Endowment Fund (© Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)

  1. The trouble that is attested to in the corpus of 'private' Brussels drawings is, then, less individual, or subjective, than that of the group25: the 'private' drawings paradoxically disclose the fate of publicness, while the public canvases retreat into the pseudo-domestic. Violent and disturbing, the drawings are indeed impossible not to think of as hysterical repetitions of a collective trauma of Terror re-iteratively performed in his new dwelling. They belie David's declaration of newfound happiness, and render it precarious.

  2. As perhaps the most famous name in the exile community David in fact was urged to write his memoirs – by Dominique-Vincent Ramel de Nogaret, who was the subject of a "disturbingly direct" portrait by David – but he declined to do so.26 He was not alone in this, for along with the veritable flood of memoir writing in the 1820s there co-existed a certain resistant silence amongst certain of the exiles, a refusal to produce the memory.27 Such muteness does not necessarily amount to a forgetting of the radical Revolution. In the 1820s David's silence, it could be argued, protects the memory of the Robespierrian Revolution, guarantees its inviolability.28

  3. For in Brussels the name David continued to be closely identified with that of Robespierre. Etienne Delécluze, writing in 1855, relates the possibly apocryphal story of the Englishman who at the theatre one night had attempted to get near the great painter but it turns out, only in order to shake the hand of someone who had touched Robespierre.29 David/Robespierre, the names have forever remained inextricable. Given this proximity, is not David's abstention from publicly uttering the name 'Robespierre' in all the years of his exile remarkable? Does it not suggest a protecting of the name, an awaiting of the future promise of Year Two, unapologetically allied to an emancipatory vision that bears the name 'Robespierre'? David's rare anecdotally recorded private responses to being reminded of Robespierre in his exile attest to an increasingly powerful, rather than diminished, reverence: Robespierre, David asserted, was a virtuous citizen, like Jesus Christ altars will be raised to him.30 Public silence, then, avoided the need for an act of repudiation, or ritual self-cleansing under the hegemonic force of an early-nineteenth-century bourgeois order. No need to justify oneself for there are no regrets, no need to write the memoir. On being urged to write his memoirs, David is said to have rejoined, "Le temps rendra à chacun ce qui est dû".31 Such a comment implies a certain faith in the persistence of Year Two, a belief in its ultimate vindication.

  4. And yet, in 1824, as he approaches death, there is, perhaps, a certain loosening of the tongue in the form of the final 'youthful' painting Mars Disarmed. Already in 1821, when David began to work on Mars Disarmed, visual evidence testifies to a certain release of affect – the previously suppressed exilic anger – in the thematically related drawing Mars and Rhea Sylvia.32 This perceptible shift in David's subjectivity could have been prompted by the bitter experience of being left behind: many of David's fellow regicides returned to Paris in 1818, taking advantage of Louis XVIII's government's decree granting reprieve to exiled regicides and Bonapartists.33 In contrast to him, they willingly made public declarations of remorse and expiation, asking forgiveness from God and King.34

  5. The subject of Mars and Rhea Sylvia is rape, and if it is not in itself particularly disturbing this only readies us for its shocking transformation into the later violent 'pendant' Rape of Lucretia (fig. 3), a drawing which, dated 1825, could be the last work from David's hand.35

3 Jacques-Louis David, The Rape of Lucretia, 1825, black crayon and white gouache on paper, 17 x 20 cm. Private Collection (reprod. from: Philippe Bordes, Jacques-Louis David. Empire to Exile, New Haven and London, 2005, 261. Photo: Christie's Paris)

  1. As Mark Ledbury has argued, David vents his continuing sense of victimhood and subjection in this deeply terrorized image in no uncertain terms.36 In fact victimhood is doubly articulated here; on the one hand in the cowing and terrified figure of Lucretia; on the other in the bent, abused figure of the male slave, which it has not been previously noted is burdened with a 'gross swollen cheek' that appears distinctly Davidian.37 Furthermore, if David is able to identify with every subject position within the picture, his exilic anger may be articulated equally through the vengeful figure of the rapist itself. Here in this depiction of violent forced sexual encounter is the return of the repressed of those libidinous anacreontic images that David produced in the rejuvenated, happy and 'free' early years of his exile – Cupid and Psyche, Eucharis and Telemachus – a return of the repressed which is heralded at least thematically by the transitional, yet still highly controlled, Ovidian painting Anger of Achilles of 1819.38 We should not think of David's subjectivity in exile as monolithic and unchanging: in the later Brussels work, David shifts into the condition of "absolute exile".39

  2. As chronologically bracketed by the two rape drawings, I want to suggest that Mars Disarmed is a work in which David is ready to speak of what has happened to the Revolution, to his once-Revolutionary self, but now in a valedictory public mode. As such, the painting may take its place amongst the proliferation of Revolutionary memoirs by the dying regicides. As a strategic missive to Paris it intervened actively in a Paris that in the 1820s was mad about memory – although quite careful to attempt to forget its radical past. As Pierre Nora has shown, in the years between 1820 and 1840 some five hundred published volumes of memoirs appeared on the Paris market, transforming the city into a veritable theatre of memory.40 And yet as a public statement of 'all said and done', Mars Disarmed is not a justification of a Revolutionary life cleansed of the Robespierrian Terror, disclosing a David finally pacified with the 'Restoration' world.


Painting on the Far Shore (back to the Rococo)

  1. Paradoxically, David's turn to mythology, to this 'offshore' realm of the Gods, is something of an anti-lieu de mémoire: a space that resists the ideological constructions of sites of memory as they were being erected, normatively, all over postrevolutionary Paris.41 To the extent that David has not previously broached it, the site of this encounter between Mars and Venus is a motivated leap away – exile, ex salire – from all his earlier and problematic selves, to a free and uncontaminated space.42

  2. There is a current of postrevolutionary painting – by Gérard, Girodet, Prudhon, Guérin, Ingres, Mongez and others – that collectively turns to myth, and David's mythological work in exile has been understood as concurrent with this.43 Yet, I want to propose a more complex sense of time involved in David's 'late' turn to the mythological in Mars Disarmed, whereby he recourses to the eighteenth-century figure of Boucher – and to never-forgotten aspects of his early self – through those very mainstream modern mythologizing movement that would rather deny the latter a place in history. David's last major work is haunted, by a very specific past.44

  3. For by the look of it, there is the return here of another ghost: rather than Robespierre, the haunting presence that returns in Mars Disarmed is François Boucher. What looks out at us through the glance of the figure of Cupid is Boucher as a spectral presence. Through this recursion into the 'pre-historic' – prerevolutionary – territory of gods and goddesses, quivers, Graces and Cupid, David bypasses the Restoration, the Empire, the Revolution, his first (and every subsequent) encounter with Rome, and sets himself, painting now towards death, squarely where he was at the age of seventeen; encountering his first and most important mentor, the ageing Boucher.45 As Edward Said has noted, an artist's 'late' style characteristically involves a "return or homecoming to realms forgotten or left behind by the relentless advancement of history".46 In its anomalous 'late' temporality – and much of the painting's oddity derives from the crushing together of the fusionary language of 'Boucher' and that of a transparent ethical neoclassicism – Mars Disarmed recalls eighteenth-century painting, just as the regicide community in their memoirs were fond of remembering a life before the Revolution.47 The mark of its lateness is in fact in its radical turn to the early, to what for David was, pre-dating his discovery of the archaic Roman and Greek, his primal scene of art.48

  4. Boucher is invoked through the very theme of the painting. This paradigmatic articulation of sexual differencing in art – Mars and Venus – was one that from Venus Requesting Vulcan to Make Arms for Aeneas of 1732 to Mars and Venus of 1754, Boucher had explored famously in all its narrative complications.49 Even as the ruins of Greece in the form of Corinthian columns and gold palmettes surge in the background, the entire scene is in fact erected upon the typically rococo motif of the cloud; a rococo cloud that in its brooding and inexplicable darkness is glimpsed, one could say, through the Terror, 'Boucher' overshadowed, as it were, by ineradicable traces of the violence of Year Two.50 David, for sure, is not altogether comfortable of his footing in the amorphous 'free' space he now embarks upon – not sure of his ability to grasp Boucher's brilliant spatial fluidity – and he anchors the scene with the overbearing structure of the temple that he borrows from David Le Roy's Ruines des plus beaux Monuments de la Grèce; stamps his neo-Greek aesthetic on it from the back, as it were.51


The Metaphor of Non-Sex in Exile

  1. As Norman Bryson has observed, the non-space of the Rococo aesthetic – the diaphanous, space-dissolving cloud setting in which everything takes place – is the ground and condition of a distinctive eroticism that seeks to stage the body for the viewer's optimal voracious sexual pleasure.52 Here it is insistently heterosexual, for the politically compromised homoerotic of Death of Socrates, Oath of the Tennis Court, Marat at his Last Breath, and Leonidas at Thermopylae is long left behind on the 'far shore'.53 If we turn to the genesis of the work we will see that what we see in the painting is actually only the traces of a sexual relation that has been rejected; that remains in ruins, as a measure, I will suggest, of David's postrevolutionary disabusement in exile. In Mars Disarmed, sexual pleasure is staged, but only to be simultaneously repressed. If David's is possibly the most un-sexy image of Mars and Venus ever to have been painted, we should inquire how and why this is so.

  2. In 1821, David's independent choice of the political subject of Mars Disarmed by Venus as an allegory of Peace was apposite to the post-Waterloo European desire for peace after a generation of war. In the première idée sketch of about 1821, the figure of the hero, Mars, is replete with sexual satisfaction (fig. 4).54

Jacques-Louis David, Première idée for Mars Disarmed by Venus, 1817, black crayon on paper, 13.5 x 17.5 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gift of John S. Newberry (Photo: Allan Macintyre © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  1. The solid, erect neck holds up a head that is un-bearded, and covered with tousled, tight curls. Although the furrowed brow implies a hint of consternation at the performance to come, there is a faint, but distinct, smile on the youthful face. And the body is ready. Muscular, but languorous, Mars sprawls out on the bed, legs apart, edging his left thigh and leg up towards the genital area of the figure of Venus: with his possessive left arm he reaches across to grab her buttocks. The body of Venus is twisted, contorted, for optimal sexual availability, his and ours. Mars' left hand invites the viewer to take hold of the body, to follow the direction of the hand that leads down Venus' right buttock and into her plump thigh. The breasts are exposed, the genital slit is graphic. As Venus pushes and slides her belly and sex along Mars' powerful thigh, she reaches out her erect right arm – while the other substitutes his stiff penis – as if to crown him, phallus upon phallus.55 But the final painting stages a negotiated withdrawal from this vision of jouissance.

  2. From sexual merging in the earlier drawing David shifts to sexual alienation in the painting. In the only other extant preparatory drawing for Mars Disarmed, the Besançon Study that was probably executed in the latter half of 1823, we see him working towards a disturbing transformation (fig. 5).