ART / Faces of history: Andrew Graham-Dixon on David's Portrait of the Vicomtesse Vilain XIIII and Her Daughter, 'a masterpiece of frank and unaffected tenderness'

Shortly before losing the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon visited the painter Jacques-Louis David in his studio. He arrived in a dark mood which was not lightened by contemplation of the vast canvas to which David had devoted 14 years of his considerable but intermittent energy, Leonidas at Thermopylae. Napoleon had never liked the painting because he considered its subject, the stoical acceptance of a military defeat, an unlucky one. But he produced an elegant compliment none the less: 'Continue, David, to illustrate France with your works. I hope that copies of this picture will soon be hung in military academies; it will remind cadets of the virtues of their calling.' The two men parted amicably, and never met again.

Shortly afterwards, David linked his own fate inextricably with that of Napoleon by subscribing to the acte additionnel, which denied the right of the Bourbon monarchy to rule France. Following Napoleon's defeat and the Bourbon restoration, David was made to feel the full force of the new and precarious regime's displeasure. All those who had supported the acte additionnel, it was announced, 'are exiled in perpetuity from the kingdom which they must leave within one month, under penalty of Article 32 of the penal code.' He left Paris at once and chose to spend the remainder of his life in the uneventful obscurity of Brussels.

Once the most celebrated painter of France's most turbulent years, once the intimate of Robespierre, once the pageant- master of the Revolution and creator of the cults of its martyrs Marat and Lepelletier, once the propagandist of the First Empire and the unrivalled chef d'ecole of French Neo-Classicism, David would occupy much of his last eight years in painting bourgeois Belgians. Having spent the previous four decades of his life at the epicentre of history he found himself suddenly consigned to its margins, living in a town whose most conspicuous feature, he noted, was the spotlessness of its streets. Brussels was David's St Helena.

The National Gallery recently acquired a great painting by David which sheds new light on this little studied, little regarded period of the artist's life. It is a work which, previously almost unknown, may help to revise the standard but ill- considered art historical view that his last years were marked by decline and melancholy, a dispirited and uninspired moping towards death. Purchased for pounds 3.5m, by no means an exorbitant price given the extreme scarcity of pictures by David still in private hands, it is a remarkable addition to the national collections of art.

David's Portrait of the Vicomtesse Vilain XIIII and Her Daughter is a masterpiece of frank and unaffected tenderness that may, too, have subterranean depths of meaning. It is one of the least strident pictures that David ever painted, this picture of a young woman and her five-year-old daughter posed, but not too formally, in a plain well-lit interior. The painter is almost exclusively absorbed by the substantial presence of his two sitters, whom he has portrayed in a style which seems more Flemish or Dutch than French. These are not the hard marmoreal beings of David's Neo-Classicism, but warmer and more palpable creatures, flushed and vital.

No attempts have been made to idealise, the style of the painting implies, to smoothe out the protuberance of a nose or improve the contour of a cheek. The mother sits patiently, gazing mistily into the distance of her own thoughts. The little girl is curiouser and more self-conscious. She wonders what the painter is doing, behind his easel, and concentrates on holding her smile in place.

The Vicomtesse Vilain XIIII, who was, like David, a Bonapartist exile from France, seems to have found the process of having her portrait painted singularly dull. Her letters, recently discovered in a Belgian archive, testify to the tiringly methodical thoroughness with which the artist set about her likeness. 'I am beginning to think that my portrait will be quite good, but I admit that the whole thing is extremely boring. The day before yesterday the sitting lasted from 11 to 3.30, and was for the forehead and eyes; yesterday's sitting lasted from 11 to 2.45 for the nose and cheeks. Today he will do the chin and the mouth.' How straightforward she makes it sound. Having decided on his composition and roughed it on to the canvas, David proceeded, part by part, to assemble his images of mother and daughter. Yet the finished painting is nothing like the laborious inventory of detail suggested by the method. Two different human beings - David has painted them in different focus, the mother slightly sharper and more statuesque, her child softer and more potentially mobile - have been granted that form of perpetual life which is a great portrait.

The picture seems charged not merely with life but with a significance that goes beyond a painter's record of what two particular people looked like on a certain week in May 1816. David's portrait is too assertive in its realism to be read as an allegory, but it does have a muted allegorical dimension, which is to be found in the emphatic contrast between mother and daughter. This is a picture of innocence and experience, youth and an older and wiser condition of life that seems tinged with melancholy; and a picture of the bonds of affection that join the two. It is a picture of nurture, whose most affecting detail and most subtle invention is the twined arms and softly touching fingers of mother and child. The child draws her mother's arm and fluid orange shawl around her. Comfort is unthinkingly sought and instinctively given.

Few painters have been as hardily adaptable as David and to see this portrait is to see him, late in life and in unpromising circumstances, devising an entirely new style and perhaps an entirely new moral base for his painting. Just a year after his last appearance on the world stage, that curious and emotional meeting with Napoleon, we find him creating a quite new sort of art for himself. Its style may be appropriate to exile since it is a style of renunciation, implying valediction to one world and embrace of another.

The background to the painting is part of its meaning and may partly explain the almost unsettling intensity of its realism, the sense of an artist releasing himself into the everyday world of people and things. It is the work of a painter who has spent almost his entire life in the service of one or other political cause or ideal and the world of his painting has been, overwhelmingly, an idealised martial and masculine world: a world of heroic action, of dangerous moral enthusiasms, of Revolutionary zeal or imperial hubris. But here we see David turning his back on all that and sympathising, simply but profoundly, with a mother and her daughter.

There had been other moments of moral or political disillusionment when David had rediscovered his humanity by painting portraits, but perhaps none when he had felt so terminally disenchanted as this. He had lived through the Terror and through Napoleon's long years of blood and he was tired. These two still people may, perhaps, stand in for the silent victims of all the bloody heroics of French history that David had seen. They may be David's archetypes of the people who, generally unnoticed, are left to count the cost of men's aggression. All women and children may be implied in this picture of one woman and her child.

David's didactic pictures are full of busy, gesticulating hands and arms and when they have, occasionally, been stilled, their stillness is portentous and heroic, like that of Marat's limp arm in perhaps his most famous painting of all. Now, however, David has found another kind of stillness, the stillness of affection. Having spent his entire life attempting to define and picture the nature of human heroism, he finds it staring him in the face in a room in Brussels. The discovery has the air of a revelation. His picture celebrates, not an active or impulsive form of heroism, but one that is slow and instinctive: not the sudden heroics of action, but the calm and persistent heroics of love.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker