This is the last great picture David painted. He began work on it in 1822 and completed it the
year before his death.
David wanted to outdo himself once more. In December 1823, he wrote: "This
is the last picture I want to paint, but I want to surpass myself in it. I will put the date
of my seventy-five years on it and afterwards I will never again pick up my brush."
The subject is taken from Creek mythology. Mars and Venus were the names
given by the Romans to Ares and Aphrodite, the god of war and the goddess of love.
The legend of their love affair corresponds to the charming idea that Beauty seduces
and disarms Force. Aphrodite had a child, Eros, also called Cupid, and then had
three girls, the Graces-Euphrosyne, Thalia, and Aglaia. The attributes of Mars were
the lance and the sword, while Venus was represented by the turtledove, among other
attributes. The three Graces were traditionally portrayed nude, entwined, or holding
each other by the hand and dancing.
David was faithful to the legend, even down to these details, but his primary
intention was to compose a sort of allegorical apotheosis. The scene takes place in a
celestial Olympus, high above the famous mountain, in the midst of clouds. The faces
are graceful and the feminine bodies very beautiful, especially that of Venus, which
might be considered the most exquisite female nude ever painted by David. Mars
looks very much like Leonidas, although his pose is much less contemplative.
The coloring is translucent and pearly, like painting on porcelain. The attitudes
are conventional, the setting elaborate.
It was first exhibited in Brussels and then sent to Paris. Thiers, a journalist at the
time, praised the color which "astonishes by its brilliance." "Never," he wrote, "has
colored fabric been so perfect, so finely executed." He also praised "the beautiful
lines," but he wondered "if the painting did not mark the end of the path on which
David had set out." He added that "if one does care for style to turn into academic
pretentiousness, for drawing to turn into an imitation of statues, for color to be
pushed to a tiresome clash of hues, to a studied transparency and the sheen of glass,"
then, "one will consider David's painting to contain some beautifully executed parts,
but perhaps dangerous to propose as a model and, finally, the last word of a system
that was good when it served as a corrective, which it can no longer be when it tends
towards excesses that need to be corrected in turn."
But David's former pupils flocked to see the painting and were full of admiration. The exhibit
brought in, after expenses, 13,000 francs, which means that there
were more than 10,000 visitors, an enormous number for the time.
How could anyone not be moved by this famous old man's farewell to painting- this is an
enchanted world dedicated to grace and beauty, to their supreme victory over matter and force.
What does it matter if the composition is theatrical! The
smiles are lighthearted, the attitudes graceful, the gestures exquisite- and the female
nudes are quite simply sublime. The aging painter dreamt a final dream of beauty,
more chaste than in his youth, but physically more perfect than ever, and this is how
we shall remember him.
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