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Art in Eighteenth-Century Rome


Jacques-Louis David
Paris 1748–1825 Brussels

A Vestal
ca. 1783–87

oil on canvas
32 x 24 3/4 inches
81.1 x 65.4 cm



Lespinasse d’Arlet de Langeac (17591814)
his sale, Paris, 11 July 1803, lot 256; acquired by
Pierre-Joseph Lafontaine (1758–1835)
Hippolyte de Livry
his sale, Paris, 16–17 April 1810, lot 62; acquired by
Pierre-Joseph Lafontaine (1758–1835)
Vente de W…, Paris, 14–16 March 1844, lot 32
Wailly collection
his sale, Paris, 17–18 February 1853, lot 140
Théodore Duret (1838–1927), Paris
with Wildenstein & Cie, Paris; acquired by
William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951), 1928
his sale, Saks Fifth Avenue, New York, 1941, lots 301-03; acquired by
Charles Norvin Rinek (1888–1980), Easton; by inheritance
Dorothy L. Rinek, Easton, 1964
her sale, Christie’s, New York, 24 May 1985, lot 181
with Colnaghi, New York and London; Stair Sainty Mathiesen; New York; Mathiesen Gallery, London; acquired by the following
Private Collection, since 1987



Paris, Palais du Domaine de Bagatelle, Exposition rétrospective de portraits de femmes sous les trois Républiques, 15 May–15 July, 1909
Paris, Palais des Beaux-Arts, David et ses élèves, 7 April–9 June 1913
Rochester, Memorial Art Gallery, The Place of David and Ingres in a century of French Paintings, 1940; traveled to Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1940
Paris, Musée du Louvre, Jacques-Louis David, 26 October 1989–12 February 1990
Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century, 20 March–30 May 2011


Selected Bibliography

Antoine Thomé, Vie de David, Premier Peintre de Napoléon, Brussels, 1826, p. 234.
Alphonse Mahul, Annuaire Nécrologique, ou Complément Annuel et Continuation de Toutes les Biographies ou Dictionnaires Historiques, Paris, 1826, p. 135.
Pierre Alexandre Coupin, Essai sur J. L. David, Peintre d’Histoire, Paris, 1827, p. 54.
Charles Blanc, Histoire des Peintres Français au dix-neuvième siècle, Paris, 1845, p. 209.
Miette de Villars, Mémoires de David, peintre et député à la Convention, Paris, 1850, p. 155.
Etienne Jean Delécluze, Louis David, son école et son temps, Souvenirs, Paris, 1855, p. 137.
Jean Du Seigneur, ‘Appendice à la notice de P. Chaussard sur L. David’ Revue Universelle des Arts, t. XVIII, 1863– 1864, p. 365.
Jacques-Louis David, Notice sur le Marat de Louis David suivie de la lite de ses tableaux dressée par lui-même, Paris, 1867, p. 34.
Jacques-Louis Jules David, Le peintre Louis David, 1748–1825, Souvenirs et documents inédits par J. L. Jules David son petit-fils, Paris, 1880, pp. 54 and 637.
André Hallays, Catalogue de portraits de femmes sous les trois Républiques exposés par la Société nationale des beaux-arts dans les Palais du Domaine de Bagatelle du 15 mai au 15 juillet 1909, Évreux, 1909, reproduced facing p.15.
Joseph Baillio, Elisabeth Louise Vigée le Brun: 1755–1842, Fort Worth, 1982, exh. cat., reproduced p. 68, fig. 20.
Antoine Schnapper and Arlette Sérullaz, Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825, Paris, 1989, pp. 19–21, 115, 136, no. 51, reproduced p.161.
Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection, New York, 1993, p. 247, reproduced fig. 81.
Paul Lang, Anna Stoll and Thomas Becker, Joseph Bonaparte et le Château de Prangins: Deux acquisitions du Musée national suisse, Zurich, 1995, pp. 26 and 35, reproduced p. 28, fig. 27.
Sophie Monneret, David et le néoclassicisme, Paris, 1998, pp. 67–68, reproduced p. 67.
Benjamin Perronet and Burton B. Fredericksen, Répertoire des tableaux vendus en France au XIXe siècle, Paris and Los Angeles, 1998, p. 351.
Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat, Jacques-Louis David 1748–1825: catalogue raisonné des dessins, Milan, 2002, vol. 1, p. 79, reproduced fig. 59a.
Guillaume Faroult, David, Paris, 2004, pp. 81–82.
Burton B. Fredericksen, ‘Survey of the French Art Market between 1789 and 1820,’ Collections et marché de l’art en France, 1789–1848, Rennes, 2005, pp. 26 and 30.
Hearst the Collector, Los Angeles, 2008, pp. 49, 125, reproduced p. 124.
Guillaume Faroult, L’Antiquité rêvée: innovations et résistances au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, 2010, p. 460, reproduced fig. 191.
Guillaume Faroult and Christophe Leribault, Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century, Houston, 2011, reproduced p. 178.


Lent by a Private Collection, New York

David mentioned the painting in the manuscript list of his works, established in 1810, in ‘approximate’ chronological order (à peu près dans leur ordre de date’). It was, however, only in 1909 that the painting was exhibited for the first time. It was not unanimously accepted as authentic (despite its signature) and was criticized for its execution and the sweet expression of the sitter. The incomprehension of the early 20th-century critics is all the more surprising considering that the painting belonged at the time to Théodore Duret, an astute critic who had advocated the works of Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists. Mary Cassatt suggested its purchase to her friend Louisine Havemeyer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, it was later acquired from Wildenstein & Cie. by William Randolph Hearst but apparently kept in storage before being sold again in 1941. It was not shown publicly until 1986 when it was owned by the British dealers Colnaghi, Patrick Matthiesen and Guy Stair Sainty, and eventually sold to the current owner.

The painting always elicited questions: Its date and its subject in particular have not always been agreed among historians. Usually considered an early work—painted before the outbreak of the French Revolution, it has been dated as early as 1785 and as late as 1795. It is nowadays widely accepted that its likely date is 1787. This however does not explain all the singularities of the painting. Unfortunately, nothing is known of its genesis. Its size and polished execution suggest an important commission. Because of its mention in David’s list of autograph paintings along with a Psyche of similar dimensions, the two pictures have been paired even though the first mention of the Psyche in David’s correspondence goes back only to 1795. As noticed by Guillaume Faroult, the subject and style of the Psyche point to a date posterior to 1787 (2011, loc. cit.); it was in all likelihood painted while David was in jail from 1794–95, yet still able to receive models. If juxtaposed, the two paintings form an uneasy pair—for reasons beyond the sharp contrast between the austere nude (Psyche) and the diaphanous and billowing folds of the Vestal’s dress. What the paintings have in common, however, is their relationship to the academic exercise of the Tête d’expression taught at the French Academy. Seen as a single painting rather than as a pendant, the Vestal presents a different set of questions. It has been suggested that it is a portrait of a famous actress, Mademoiselle Raucourt (1756–1815), known for her beauty, her stage performances and her involvements with erotic partners of both sexes. Augustin Pajou executed her bust, now in a private collection, flattering and idealizing his subject. More realistic perhaps is her portrait by Adèle Romany, where her features appear somewhat coarser (Musée du Comédie-Française, I0076). Neither image, however, could either confirm or deny her identification as the model for David’s Vestal. Furthermore, the representation of a notorious actress as vestal would be, if not outright comical, at least inappropriate. One could also wonder if David could have been close to an actress whose royalist convictions led her to spend time in prison at the outbreak of the French Revolution.

It would be anachronistic to use the term ‘realism’ to describe David’s portraiture. Yet, all his portraits from Madame François Buron (Art Institute of Chicago, 1963.205) to Jean-Pierre Delahaye (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2006.63)—his last portrait done in France literally on the eve of his exile to Brussels—are defined by a haunting immediacy, which is the opposite of the ecstatic pathos displayed in our painting. Rather, the Vestal joins—and perhaps concludes—a robust tradition of such images in 18th-century French painting. Greuze, of course, provided multiple images of female models embodying purity, chastity or faithfulness, the very virtues attached to the vestals. Carle Vanloo, Nattier, Vien and the Montpelliérain painter Jean Raoux disguised aristocratic models as vestals to illustrate their real or imagined virtues. And closer to David, Jacques Gamelin, a painter who embraced the French Revolution and became a member of the Société Populaire et Révolutionnaire des sans-culottes de Narbonne painted vestals and Roman matrons as the models for virtuous French women (Musée de Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne, 1983.2.1028).

The ambiguity remains: David’s vestal may become an exemplum virtutis, but she is also depicted as seductive. The scroll she holds may be a love poem rather than a sacred text. Her gaze upward may indicate regret, longing, or sadness (David may have used a drawing executed in 1773, La Douleur, to guide him in creating his vestal). The sacred flame burning at her side may soon be extinct with deathly consequences. Vestals and their often-tragic destiny—caused by negligence or forbidden love—may in part have inspired the global interest in the world of antiquity in the second part of the 18th century, but it is certain that the vestal occupied a high place in the erotic imagination of historians, novelists and playwrights of the time. The perceived raciness of a play such as Ericie ou la Vestale (1767) by Joseph-Gaspard Dubois-Fontenelle barred it from the stage, its author condemned to obscurity from which he was only rescued by the Revolution. In 1807, La Vestale by Gaspare Spontini was staged in Paris to great acclaim. It is undoubtedly against this rich and complex background that David’s compelling Vestal can be best understood.❖

J. Patrice Marandel

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