Art: David the Difficult

"Hurry, hurry, my dear friend, thumb over your Plutarch and choose a subject familiar to everyone—it counts a great deal." Jacques-Louis David, the painter prophet of the French Revolution, was advising a favorite pupil. "Now give yourself to what really constitutes history painting," he went on. "All other sorts . . . will disappear; only this is safe from men's passions."

The curly-maned old lion could never have dreamed it, but his kind of painting, which put ideas ahead of emotions, was on the verge of obscurity for a century or more. The romantic French masters who followed him, from Courbet and...

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