Some paintings are so familiar it's easy to dismiss the artist's genius. One may forget that a career consisted of more than, say, an image of a Campbell's soup can or a Renaissance woman with an enigmatic smile. Jacques-Louis David is one such artist. While his name may not be familiar, his iconic images are. Think Napoleon on the back of a rearing white horse and you're in the right gallery.
David was the most celebrated painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, known around the world for the large Neoclassical history paintings that celebrate his beloved French Revolution and, eventually, his somewhat confusing devotion to the Emperor Napoleon. Many art critics call him one of the first "modern" artists. His life was extraordinarily long (1748 to 1825) and productive, despite the fact that near the end of it, the former revolutionary was banished from post-Napoleonic Paris for his earlier associations. The man who once helped found the Louvre Museum in Paris spent the final decade of his life in Brussels, away from centers of the art world for the first time in his life. There, until his death, he taught students and explored less political and more personal themes in portraits and allegorical paintings.
Despite David's fame and influence on successive generations, no museum in the United States has hosted a show on the French artist. In 1989, the Louvre mounted a David retrospective, including canvases from his early career that are permanently installed there due to their sheer size. However, no exhibition has focused exclusively on the final 30 years of his career. With "Jacques-Louis David:
Empire to Exile," scholars have put an end to this oversight, according to William Griswold, acting director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. "He was the primary image maker of Napoleon," he says, adding, it's time to address David's entire career.
Curator Scott Schaefer says that he felt so strongly about the need for such a show that he made the mounting of this exhibition a condition of his employment when he was recruited by the Getty. "David's late works are incredibly moving and personal," he says, "this is a beautiful exhibition that has been a long time in gestation."
The show opens with the famous image of Napoleon on horseback. "I did that consciously, because everyone knows that image, even if they've never heard the artist's name," says Mr. Schaefer. From there, the 26 paintings and 22 drawings reveal the preoccupations of this artist in his late prime: intimate portraits of friends and family members, meditations on classical themes such as Cupid and Psyche, and, of course, Napoleon.
An emerging modern sensibility runs through them all, Schaefer says. "David has a great self-awareness of his own career," says the curator. When he paints Napoleon on the rearing horse, he is consciously referring to and trying to outdo great artists from past eras, such as Titian and Velásquez. "He's offering his own version of those great traditions."
The mythological tales are treated with a consummately modern sensibility, he adds. The young boy in "Cupid and Psyche" tumbles out of bed with a frank, direct smirk, challenging the viewer with a suggestion of what has just taken place between the two. "No ancient interpreter would ever have thought of doing that. It would have been too scandalous." Schaefer says that David himself wrote that one day people would understand the very earthy reality depicted in this, although he felt it might not be during his lifetime.
Many of the works from this later period were created as gifts or for exhibition rather than for hire. The artist's desire to paint his own visions rather than commissions also anchors him firmly in the modern art world, says Philippe Bordes, the French guest curator. He even went so far as to charge admission to see his works. "David has one foot in the past and one in the future," says Mr. Bordes. In particular, he broke with the notion of pleasing a patron. "This is no longer art for the palace, but art for the museum," he says. "It is the beginning of a new definition of art."
The show has been enthusiastically received. Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight calls it "a magnificent new exhibition." Calling David one of the greatest European painters, Edward Goldman, critic for the local National Public Radio affiliate, KCRW, says, "We don't have the luxury to not pay attention to what is the best among us." Mr. Goldman, who is a Russian immigrant, also points out the lessons in David's dramatic life story. As a first- generation American who had to reinvent himself in this country, Goldman takes heart from the image of an artist who was on top of the world, but had to build a new life from scratch in another country. "There are so many artists who don't survive past the first chapter of their careers," says Goldman. "David just continues on."
The very length of his career may be what has kept the final act so dimly lit, says Michael Amy, an assistant professor of art history at Rochester Institute of Technology and a member of the International Society of Art Critics.
"These works don't fit what we have come to expect of David or our images of the founder of Neoclassicism," Professor Amy says. He applauds the opportunity to reexamine the late works of an important master. "David is an essential figure. He set an unparalleled standard of excellence and everyone had to deal with him.... He remains a key portrait painter and his importance can't be overplayed."
• "Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile" runs at the Getty Museum through April 24. It will be shown at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., June 5 through Sept. 5.