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Jacques-Louis David

French, 1748–1825

Portrait of Jacques-François Desmaisons, 1782

Oil on canvas
36 x 28 1/2 inches (91.4 x 72.4 cm)
General Purchase Funds, 1944

On view in Eye to Eye: Looking Beyond Likeness (March 8–May 17, 2015)

When Jacques-Louis David was nine years old his father was killed in a duel and his uncle, Jacques-François Desmaisons, helped his mother take care of him. Desmaisons was a very prominent architect—a member of the French Royal Academy of Architecture and architect to King Louis XVI. On the table before him are the tools of his profession: architectural drawings, a ruler, a compass, and books about architecture. The binding of one of the books is legible; it was written by Andrea Palladio, a sixteenth-century Italian architect whose classically inspired work was popular in France during Desmaisons’s time.

The portrait is also a warm and intimate representation of a man who was very important in the artist’s life. His pose and attitude seem to imply that we have just interrupted his work. He lowers his pen, glances up, and raises his eyebrows, curious about the reason for the intrusion.

Seven years after this portrait was painted, the king for whom Desmaisons worked suffered the fate of the French Revolution, and was guillotined in 1793. It is unknown what happened to Desmaisons, but as a member of the aristocracy his life might well have been in jeopardy.

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