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A rare look at a visionary myth-maker

WILLAMSTOWN -- The story of Jacques-Louis David's life and art is nearly as epic as his vast history paintings. It's a rollicking tale of revolution and imprisonment, myth-making and humility, power and passion. The father of Neoclassicism, born in 1748, had already established himself as a bold and visionary artist by the time of the French Revolution. Works such as his hallmark ''Oath of the Horatii" (1784) defied the sweet and fusty fashion of court painting, championing a more virile and theatrical form that harkened back to the physical ideals and themes of ancient Greece and Rome.

''Oath of the Horatii" depicted a trio of Roman brothers taking swords from their father before going off to fight. David, a great painter who embraced painterly and political challenges, was a revolutionary, and his art chronicled the revolution. His chilling ''Marat Assassinated" (1793), depicting the insurrectionist slain in his tub, is as startling and galvanizing as ''Oath of the Horatii."

Not much attention, however, has been paid to David's postrevolutionary art, the subject of the stirring and substantive ''Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile." A joint effort of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, the show is now on view at Clark Art, organized by Philippe Bordes, a French art historian. It is the first major David exhibition mounted in the United States, and it's been a long time coming.

David's reputation suffered after his death in 1825. His style was the academic hallmark at which the Impressionists thumbed their noses. There have been shows in Paris -- in 1913, in 1948, and most recently a retrospective in 1989 at the Louvre, which holds many of the artist's iconographic works in its collection. This much smaller show of 26 paintings and 22 drawings is the first to consider the artist's late work.

David's restless artistic ambition powers the show. David was imprisoned in 1794 for nearly a year for the active part he played in the Reign of Terror; he was among the legislators who voted for the execution of Louis XVI. During that time he painted a humble self-portrait, delicate and earthy in shades of brown, holding a palette and brush -- as if to remind himself and his audience of his true vocation.

It may seem odd, even by today's standards a sellout, that after the revolution, David should hitch his wagon to Napoleon's star. But throughout his career, David's own imagination was sparked by the zeitgeist of the time, by stirring figures and sweeping events. In some ways, he was caught up in the myths he helped create. It seems clear that he was inspired by the young general's ardor, and then after Napoleon's 1804 coronation he took the opportunity as the emperor's First Painter to continue to challenge himself as an artist. Here again he saw opportunities to turn the day's events into mythic ones, to create the story of the emperor as he had the story of the revolution.

Napoleon, not yet crowned but already larger than life, greets the viewer upon entrance to the exhibition. ''Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard" (1800-1801) is a magnificent and impressive piece of myth-making. Napoleon sits astride a rearing, wild-eyed horse; his calm eyes, directed right at the viewer, assure us he is in command. His golden cloak blows around him, looking like a giant wing -- as if he is about to take off for great heights. In the distance behind him, soldiers toil up the mountain, anchoring the deifying scene in the hard work of the people. Is this a painting of history in the making, or is it potent PR? Napoleon rode a mule, not a spooked steed, over the Alps.

David painted a sprawling, 31-foot-wide depiction of Napoleon's coronation; in the first go-round, it showed the emperor audaciously crowning himself. As popular passion for Napoleon waned, David went back and rejiggered the scene, so that it depicted Napoleon placing a crown on Josephine's head. ''Empire to Exile" nods to this and other giant murals (which are not to leave the Louvre) by reproducing vertical strips to convey the scale of the originals and offering remarkable preparatory sketches.

David's portraits largely eschew the trappings of much of the portraiture of his day. Except in the case of the 1806-08 portrait of Napoleon standing in his study at dawn, most portraits have dark or muted backgrounds and truncate the subjects at the waist or knee. The scumbled background behind Suzanne Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau softens the dark-eyed beauty as she gazes mournfully and directly at us. There's a keen emotional directness in these portraits, a lack of artifice in their subjects. There is also a good deal of experimentation with composition, brushwork, and finish.

David continued his passion for ancient themes, particularly Greek. After Napoleon's fall, the artist went into exile in Brussels, where he painted other expatriates and reveled in the warm, bright tonalities in his classical paintings. ''Cupid and Psyche" (1817) has Cupid not as a winged god or cherub but an impudent adolescent, smirking as he sneaks out of the bed in which his lover sleeps. David had a talent for choosing and characterizing moments from mythology in wonderfully original ways that made the stories resonant for contemporary audiences.

The painter electrified his viewers with the way he framed the stories of his era, with his talent for conveying emotional truth, and with his brilliant portrayal of the human form. David was the right artist at the right time, but as ''Empire to Exile" proves, his art endures because it joins the mythic to the personal, and is at its heart humane.

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