Dallas purchases David’s Niobé

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
Diana and Apollo Piercing
Niobe’s Children with
their Arrows
, 1772
Oil on canvas - 121 x 154 cm
Dallas, Museum of Art

27/5/08 — Acquisition — Dallas, Museum of Art — Jacques-Louis David’s early career was toilsome (to be honest, so was the end). A distant relative of François Boucher, a student of Vien and occasional collaborator with Fragonard, we now know that it was only after a long shedding-off of the lessons of the 18th century, a catharsis that took almost ten years, that David succeeded in creating some of the most forceful images in Western art, driven by a sumptuous technique. The beginning of this transformation can be observed in the different contests he entered for the Prix de Rome , from the pleasant The Battle between Minerva and Mars (Paris, Louvre , 1771) which is still in the Boucher manner, to the Death of Seneca (Paris, Petit Palais, 1773) and Antiochus and Stratonica (Paris, Ecole supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1774) with which he finally attained first prize. In 1772, the subject was Diana and Apollo Piercing Niobe’s Children with their Arrows, drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the winner was indisputably Pierre-Charles Jombert (Paris, Ecole nationale des Beaux-Arts). The jury had the choice of awarding a second Grand Prix, which was supposed to go to David. The artist had altered the composition while the painting was in progress, and having worked on top of a layer which had not yet dried, a blackening process which damaged the painting’s aspect developed during the long period before the deliberation. Due to intriguing, the prize went to Lemonnier (Rouen, musée des Beaux-Arts). Feeling deeply humiliated, David was so affected that he tried to commit suicide by starving himself to death, an idea he abandoned after encouragement from Doyen and Jean-Michel Sedaine.

David’s painting remained almost unknown for many years. Exhibited in 1913, it had belonged since its production to the family of Louis XVIth’s doctor, Andry. His heirs refused to lend it for the retrospective at the Louvre in 1989 [1], but Antoine Schnapper devoted a few lines to it in the catalogue : “it is not of course a masterpiece, but it reveals a better organization of lighting and groups, a certain eloquence in the tumultuous drapings and in the expressions…” It came up for auction at the Hôtel Drouot but did not sell as no one wished to bid up to the 2 or 3 million euros being asked for this atypical painting, of interest only to art history (Millon & Associés, 18 March 2002). The canvas hung for a while in the offices of the auction expert, Cabinet Eric Turquin, then was presented at the exhibition of the Musée Jacquemart-André in 2006. It has just been acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art in early 2008, thanks to the Mrs. John B. O’Hara fund of the “Foundation for the Arts” (ill). A preliminary study which appeared at an auction at Drouot some twelve years ago under the revealing name of Gamelin, made the rounds of the art market.

Version française

Michel de Piles, mardi 27 mai 2008


[1] Jacques-Louis David 1748-1825, Paris, Musée du Louvre et Versailles, musée national du château, 26 October 1989 - 12 February 1990, catalogue by Antoine Schnapper and Arlette Sérullaz, p. 48 and also p. 38, fig. 21.

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