David painted almost all the members of his family and his wife's family, with the
exception of his mother (with whom his relationship appears to have been somewhat
distant), and one of his sisters-in-law, Constance Hubert (whom he did not like).
That he apparently did not paint a portrait of his wife, Charlotte (1764-1826),
before 1813- after thirty years of marriage- while he painted portraits of his father and
mother-in-law soon after his marriage, and within the next few years, produced
portraits of his wife's sister and his brother-in-law, Emilie and Charles Seriziat, may
tell us something about David's wedded life.
However, the relationship between the Davids does not seem to have been troubled except
during the Revolution. Evidently, David's political attitude was the cause
of their quarreling in 1793, although Madame David subsequently confessed to
e'tourderies (flightiness). Her father had remained a Royalist and she reproached her
husband for having voted in favor of the King's execution. In March 1794, a divorce
decree was issued and she moved into her parents' house at Saint-Ouen. But, immediately
following the fall of Robespierre and David's arrest in August 1794, Charlotte
took the first steps toward a reconciliation; she went to visit her husband with their
children, and she made continual efforts to secure his release. David remarried her in
November 1796 and their union thereafter was untroubled.
It was only progressively, however, and toward the end of David's life that their
relationship became imbued with a reciprocally strong emotion. She had always
loved David; he would increasingly come to feel more gratitude and tenderness toward her, and
she would become the charm of his old age.
In this portrait we see a slightly awkward woman. David did not flatter her in
any way but, at the same time, he did her justice. As usual in David's portraits, she is
represented against a neutral ground and he has reduced the detail to a minimum.
She is wearing her Sunday best, but aside from her cape and hat, she is dressed in the
simplest satin dress. The hat is her only attempt at elegance. Madame David gazes at
her husband with an embarrassed air. She barely dares to smile; she is snub-nosed,
and behind her drooping eyelids we can see a rather faint attempt at animation.
She is very flattered that her husband is finally painting her portrait; she loves
him; she would like to tell him so. She understands him and she admires him but, at
the same time, she recognizes the differences between them. She has been a good wife
and a good mother- that can certainly be said in her behalf. But she knows that she
is no longer attractive; she is conscious of not having the gift of pleasing. She thought
she might perhaps make herself a bit elegant. Was she right to put on her plumed hat?
David is accustomed to her. He appreciates her good qualities; he is conscious of
how much he owes her, and is even touched by her devotion. He would like to show
her his gratitude, so he paints her portrait, but he cannot make her sublime. He sees
her as she is and he pays truthful tribute. This truth reveals to him the depth of his
own personal attachment to his wife.
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