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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions