Neoclassical Nuttiness—or Why Art and Politics Don't Mix


This week we're lucky to have guest blogger Elizabeth Lunday, author of Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You about Master Painters and Sculptors, spilling the dirt on the artists you thought you knew. We'll let her take it from here:

BY ELIZABETH LUNDAY. The Neoclassical period coincided with the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, and the Napoleonic Wars. These were exciting times, and several artists found themselves drawn to politics like moths to a flame—only, not surprisingly, to get burned. Here are two examples of Neoclassical artists' unfortunate encounters with politics:

1. Life before Wite-Out: The Ridiculous Painting and Repainting and Repainting of History /

In 1812, however, English forces routed Napoleon's army and Joseph Bonaparte fled, so Goya painted over the erstwhile king's portrait and replaced it with the word Constitución, in honor of the document that promised basic freedoms to Spaniards. Ah, but then Joseph came back, so Goya returned him to his oval—but not for long. Joseph left for good in 1813, and Goya had one of his assistants put Constitución back in. "¨"¨The story doesn't end there. As the political situation in Spain waxed and waned, the oval got painted over in 1814, 1843, and 1872, by which time Goya had been dead nearly 45 years. So much for art being immortal.

2. The Shifting Loyalties of Jacques Louis David

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When support for the Terror's leaders collapsed, David found himself in prison and narrowly escaped death at the guillotine himself. You would think he would have learned his lesson, but then in 1797 he met Napoleon Bonaparte, whose devastating charisma caused him to gush, "Bonaparte is my hero!" He painted a series of highly flattering portraits of the Corsican over the years, making the emperor taller, thinner, and less-bald than in reality. Of course, things didn't end well for Bonaparte either, and after Waterloo, David had to flee into exile in Belgium. He died there, such an enemy of France that the royal court refused to allow him to be buried in his homeland.

Come back tomorrow for more great artist stories. And be sure to check out Elizabeth's wonderful new book Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You about Master Painters and Sculptors.