Monday, 11 January 2021

Images of Danton cont. - David

David and Danton - preliminary thoughts

David's contribution to the iconography of Danton is fraught with doubtful ascriptions, but also with psychological imponderables. (Is this really a man who could have calmly sketched a former friend on his way to execution?)

 We know that the artist at one time enjoyed close relations with the Danton family.  He painted a portrait of Danton's first wife Gabrielle Charpentier (now in Troyes) and possibly at least one portrait of Danton himself.  Constance Charpentier was his pupil.  Another pupil, La Neuville painted Danton's mother Madeleine Camus and his sister Mme Menuel.  Boilly made a second home with Danton and depicted Louise Gély playing with one of Danton's sons.(Campagnac,1953, p.348-9).

So how far did David follow Robespierre in his painful repudiation of Danton?   According to David Dowd, as a committed and active member of the Committee of General Security,  David necessarily co-operated in the arrest and prosecution of the Dantonists. His personal stance is unknown, though it is noteworthy that only the warrant for Hérault-Séchelles actually bears his name: 

The artist has been blamed for placing his signature on the warrant for Danton's arrest on the night of March 30, and it is said that Robert Lindet and Riihl alone had the courage to refuse to sign. As a matter of fact, the original decree is still preserved in the Museum of the French National Archives and an examination proves conclusively that David did not sign it.  Whatever part David may have played at the trial of the Dantonists, it is clear that nothing could have saved them.  (Dowd,1952, p.886)

 The only other evidence comes from Edme Courtois's hostile report on the events of 9 Thermidor, delivered to the Convention in July 1795, when David was incarcerated and unable to defend himself.  Courtois repeats early accusations made by Lecointre that  Amar, Vouland, David and Vadier had brought pressure to bear on jurors to prevent an acquittal.  He apostrophises David as he sketches Danton and Desmoulins on their way to execution:

Vile spirit, go and pursue your homicidal project! Run to a corner of the café de la Régence to wait for the fatal tumbril which will carry your former friends, Desmoulins and Danton, to their deaths;  enjoy their final moments.  Use their features, disfigured by suffering, to draw the most indecent caricatures; insult Danton at the last by pointing to him and crying at the top of your voice, "Here is the scoundrel, the  great judge!". ("Le voilà le grand juge!  C'est ce scélérat qui est le grand juge") 
Cited in Jules David, Le peintre Louis David 1748-1825: souvenirs et documents inédits (1880). p.267.

It is worth remembering that this is an uncorroborated piece of reportage - we do not really know whether David was ever at the café Régence or whether he uttered the vindictive words attributed to him. It is interesting, however, that in 1795 there must already have been "indecent caricatures" circulating in his name.


This drawing, David's iconic image of Danton, belonged to Danton's friend Alexandre Rousselin de Saint-Albin.  It was widely described and copied in the 19th-century and is the subject of a fine engraving in the Carnavalet ( G.39831).   In December 2008 the original drawing  was auctioned by Drouot having been in the Saint-Alban family for over two hundred years. It  sold for 131,355  against an estimate of 60,000/80, 000 €.

Drouot, Dessins Anciens et modernes at Piasa, 1st December 2008. Lot 137.   

Reference:  Louis-Antoine Prat and Pierre Rosenberg, Jacques-Louis David, catalogue raisonné des dessins, vol 1 (2002)  p. 175, n° 157

16.5cm x 12cm

The drawing is annotated: "Croquis au crayon noir.  Probablement de souvenir.  Appartient à M. de Saint-Albin" [Sketch in black pencil. Probably done from memory.  Belonging to M. de Saint-Albin"]

.According to the 19th-century historian Charles Blanc, David made the drawing for Saint-Albin in 1795 as an apology for having voted Danton's arrest:

In 1795 David proposed to M. Rousselin-Saint-Albin, the friend of Danton, that he would draw for him a portrait of the famous tribune.  He drew the portrait from memory, with the aid of a poorly executed marble bust.  It was done in bold strokes, broadly and with fire.  A few pencil lines, applied with apparent freedom,  and some vigorous hatch marks, allowed the revolutionary genius to shine forth from that wrecked face,  a sublime ugliness, where the majesty of the lion mixed with the energy of a bulldog.  David considered it for a moment, then gave it to M. Saint-Albin:  "Here, he said, I give you Jupiter on Mount Olympus". These words were not without weight from a man who wished to efface the memory of his participation in Danton's death.
Charles Blanc, Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles: École française vol. 2 (1862 ed), p.12.

The anecdote, with its date of 1795, seems plausible: several of David's other extant drawings are  annotated as having been "done from memory".

[Doubts about dating derive largely from Michelet, who thought the sketch must have been made in Danton's lifetime, perhaps as early as 1790,  since it showed him at the height of his powers  - Danton avant (See note below). ]


According to Aulard, writing in 1885-86,  a portrait of Danton in oils by David was said to have been stolen from Arcis by the Prussians in 1815.  A copy of this work belonged to the Saint-Albin family, and was described by Michelet, but Aulard himself had not seen the picture. (Aulard ,Orateurs, vol.2 (1886) p.221). Robinet too mentions a painting dating back to 1791 which he thought it was once in the possession of Saint-Albin, and had perhaps been sold in England after his death.

 Speculatively, the two paintings can probably be identified with the portraits in the Carnavalet, now usually ascribed to Marie-Constance Charpentier. The first was bought by Robinet from the Danton family in Arcis, the second came from Saint-Albin.

 There is, of course, no reason to exclude the possibility that Constance Charpentier had access to studies by David. The second, larger portrait, catalogued by the Carnavalet as "anonymous", clearly recalls the pose of  David's famous drawing.


There are a number of different sketches by or attributed to David which show Danton in profile.  They are clearly related to each other in some way but there is no obvious chronology or explanation for their origin.  Indeed it is hard to establish clearly how many there are (or were).    Michelet, writing in the late 1840s, mentions "two rough sketches in profile"; Robinet in 1889 has only one (in the musée Wicar in Lille). The catalogue for the 1939 Révolution française exhibition at the Carnavalet included two, No.618, belonging to Dr. A Duruy and No. 619 from the collection Lavedon.

To sort this out properly  needs access to Prat and Rosenberg's 2002 Catalogue raisonné of David's drawings - but there is not so much as a snippet view on the internet.  However, according to a notice published by Sotheby's, there are four profile portraits credited by Prat and Rosenberg: vol 1 (2002)  n° 123, 124, 125, 126.   all but one of which in public collections in 2015.  Not sure which is which, but they are (I think!) as follows:

a. Drawing in the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Musée Wicar) Lille. [No.1250]

Illustration from Louis Gonse, Musée de Lille. Musée Wicar (1878), p.17-8:

This was the most widely known of David's profile portraits in the 19th century.  

See Aulard, p.221-2.
 The museum in Lille has a sketch by David in which Danton is seen in profile.  It is the Danton of 1794, slightly fatigued and weighted down.  The artist, whilst remaining true to his subject, has allowed himself an element of caricature, or if one prefers, interpretation. The corners of the mouth are curled, the nose broad, the eyebrow tufted and prominent.  If in other portraits the eyes are small, here there are no eyesat all.  This sketch is striking, genial, as is the case whenever David is inspired from life.  He has captured the characteristic pose of the orator at the Convention, listening and muttering to himself.

It is annotated simply "Danton par David" with no definite context, though most commentators assume it was made during a sitting of the Convention. A companion portrait depicts Sylvain Bailly.  The two pictures were given in 1871 by the Gentil family,  prominent benefactors of the musée Wicar though they donated no other specifically Revolutionary pieces. I found one reference to Saint-Albin as the original owner, which seems plausible (Munro & Scrase,  1989 exhibition catalogue, p.56  reproduced below).

In default of any other information we can only accept the traditional ascription to David.  The  subjects are not an obvious pairing, though the Bailly clearly resembles the portrait in oil by David in the Carnavalet.


Henry Pluchart, Ville de Lille, Musée Wicar, Notices des dessins... (1889), p.282: 
No.1250:  David,  "Portrait of Danton". Black crayon on white paper.  Gift of the Gentil family.

There are no modern images on the internet.  Nor does the drawing appear on the modern database of the Musée de Lille, though the portrait of Bailly is there; the size for this picture is given as 10cm by 8cm.
I assume the Danton is still in the museum.  Both pictures were shown in the 1983 in the exhibition Autour de David: dessins néo-classiques du Musée des Beaux-arts de Lille (Nos. 29 and 30)

Here is a photograph from 1904:

Louis Gonse, Les Chefs-d'oeuvre des musées de France. Sculpture, dessins, objets d'art (1904),p.221

There is also an engraving of 1879 by Frédéric-Désiré Hillemacher in the Bibliothèque nationale

b. Caricature in Carnavalet [D 5882]

15.9 cm x 10.2 cm

This graphite drawing again shows Danton's left profile. The portrait is inscribed on the back "trait de David" and "No.13" (of what, I wonder) . The outline looks as if it has been worked over, perhaps for an engraving.

The entry on the Carnavalet website states that the provenance is unknown.  

However, an article of 1937 describes what sounds very much like this drawing, as purchased by the museum at auction in November 1937, having previously belonged to the playwright and collector Henri Lavedan.  It featured in the exhibition Paris et la Révolution at the Carnavalet in March-April 1931.  [See Niel (1937-8): the drawing is in black pencil, small in size and annotated on the back: "Charge de Danton par Louis David fait à la Convention, 1793".  It is similar to the profile in the musée Wicar, showing Danton with deep set eyes, prominent brows, turned up nose and "disapproving expression"]

This is presumably the same portrait exhibited in the Carnavalet exhibition of 1939:  No. 619, belonging to the "Former Collection Lavedon".

The nose and mouth seem clumsy for David; but the treatment of the roughly sketched coat is very similar to the Saint-Albin portrait.

c. Drawing from  David's sketchbook in the Harvard Art Museum

"Sketchbook No. 14: Studies for "The Coronation of Napoleon I" (Jacques-Louis David) , 1943.1815.12.1-34,” Harvard Art Museums collections online, Jan 21, 2021,

There is a description in Agnes Mongan, David to Corot: French Drawings in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard (1996), p.68:

This drawing may have been created in Napoleonic times and be just a little doodle but at least it is definitely by David,  since it is in his sketchbook! If this is indeed Danton, I wonder if there was once a more finished profile picture to which these various sketches relate?

(I can't find the drawing in Lyon referred to: Gernsheim 6051 is presumably a photograph.)   

d. Drawing sold by Sotheby's in 2015

Sotheby's sale: Old Master Drawings, 28th January 2015, lot 147: Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Georges-Jacques Danton, bust length profile to the left.  Property from a private collection.

The picture was sold for $31,250 against an estimate of $25,000-30,000.

Pen and brown ink, 6.2cm x 7.6cm 

This sketch is identified by Sotheby's as Prat & Rosenberg, Catalogue raisonné des dessins, No. 125.  It is the last of the four profiles outside public collections, and the only one in pen and ink: 

The present work is the last of the four known bust length portraits of Danton in profile to remain in private hands, and is also the only drawing from this group executed in pen and ink, like David's cruel depiction of Marie Antoinette on her way to the scaffold, now in the Louvre.  Indeed, the manner in which the artist has endowed his subject with such animalistic features, his eye deep set and his jaw locked in an eternal scowl, is indicative of just how dramatically David's attitude towards the sitter had changed during this short but bloody period of French history.  Danton's final words to his executioner were, "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It's well worth seeing".  In this instance David seems to have agreed.

The sales notice specifies that it was previously sold in London by Christie's on 4th July 1989. It was exhibited in 1989 and there are various other references, though none before 1989. They have all proved elusive on the internet.

In the absence of a complete provenance, I do not think we can be sure this picture is by David. The sketch of Marie-Antoinette to which it is compared is now often considered to be by Vivant Denon, an artist who often worked in ink.


There are several references to the existence of such a sketch by David but it seems that it is no longer to be found.  

 Robinet, writing in the 1880s,  describes a portrait owned by the artist Paul Chenavard (1808-1895) which he identifies it as the "caricature" made by David as the tumbril passed:

M. Chenavard, the painter, possesses an original David of Danton which he has allowed to be photographed; it is a caricature that the great artist drew at the café de l'École - which belonged to Danton's father-in-law - at the moment the tumbril passed.  The famous condemned man is upright, in his shirt, with his neck bare, his wig in disorder, his mouth open, monstrous, repulsive, hideous...Danton was said to have seen him and shouted "Valet"! (p.7)

Aulard, in 1885, saw the same drawing: 

We have also seen a photograph of a sketch of Danton on the tumbril, drawn at speed by David, in the same way as he captured Marie-Antoinette.  But do not suppose that passion guided the pencil of the friend of Robespierre!....It is as an artist that he saw and represented the silhouette of Danton on his way to the scaffold, his mouth open wide and his eyes unfocussed.  Anyone who has seen this sublime drawing is as unable to forget it as they are to describe it adequately. (p.222)

 Personally, I am sceptical that David was capable of sketching his former-friend in this way - but, without the drawing referred to, we have no evidence either way.

Robinet refers to a caricature by Philippe Auguste Jeanron which he thought was based on David's drawing.  This is clearly the illustration in question; here the scene seems more naturally interpreted as Danton speaking from the tribune. 

Plate from Jean-Barthélemy Hauréau, La Montagne (1834), illustrated by Jeannon

Unlocated drawings attributed to David

1. Portrait in the museum in Lyon (see profile c. above).  

David Dowd in his book Art as Propaganda in the French Revolution, published in 1946,  lists a "death cart caricature made from the Regency café in the Lyon Museum" (p.226, Google "snippet view" only).  The Fogg Museum exhibition catalogue of 1996 also mentions a drawing at Lyon, though the only reference is to an old photograph.  I can find no trace of either the drawing or the photograph on the internet.  

Might this drawing  in fact be the one that belonged to Paul Chenavard?  Chenavard was a native of Lyon and made several bequests to the museum there. However,  Agnes Mongan from the Fogg Museum is clearly describing a head-and-shoulders  profile, whereas Robinet implies Chavanard's Danton is standing upright in the cart.

2. Portrait belonging to the Saint-Albin family showing Danton in youth.

See Robinet, p. 7:  Here Robinet alludes to a drawing in red chalk which shows Danton in full vigour at the beginning of his Revolutionary career.  This portrait too belonged to the Saint-Albin family;  Madame Hortensius (presumably Saint-Albin's daughter Hortense) had made a copy. 

3. Portrait belonging to Dr A. Duruy

This reference comes from the 1939 Carnavalet catalogue.  See: Duprat (2016):   "...[there are] other pictures of Danton, in private and public collections Note (8):  The collections Chenavard, Lavedan, of Doctor A. Duruy.  Note also the existence of a double portrait of Bailly and Danton. "  There is no information about the picture Dr Duruy owned - I think the other portraits mentioned are all accounted for. 


Jean-François Robinet, Les portraits de Danton: essai d'iconographie (1889)

François-Alphonse Aulard,  Les orateurs de la Législative et de la Convention, vol. 2(1886) p.220-223.

Edmond. Campagnac, "Les portraits de la famille Danton", Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1953, No.113, p.348-353. [Available on JStor]

J.-C. Niel, "Quelques notes iconographiques à propos d'un portrait de Danton", Mémoires de la Société d'argriculture, sciences et arts du département de l'Aube, 1937-8, vol.98: p.115-121.

David L. Dowd, "Jacques-Louis David, artist member of the Committee of General Security",  American Historical Review 1952 vol.57(4): p.871-92.

Annie Duprat et Pascal Dupuy,  "Danton l’Insaisissable. Images et mémoires"in Michel Biard, Hervé Leuwers (ed)  Danton: Le mythe et l'histoire (2016),  p. 199-211.


1. Michelet on David's sketches of Danton

Here are the relevant passages from Michelet.  It is far from obvious which portraits he is discussing. His Danton "before" is usually identified with the anonymous portrait now in the Carnavalet, which was once part of the Saint-Albin collection (David's 1795 drawing is taken to represent the preliminary sketch).  The Danton "after" is more problematic:  it is described as in pen, showing Danton open-mouthed. This sounds like the drawing that belonged to Paul Chenavard;  note, however, that Michelet imagines Danton in "a nocturnal meeting of the Convention", not on the way to the scaffold.

Michelet, History of the French Revolution, trans. Charles Cocks, 1848, vol.2, p.523-4 note.


2. Checklist of portraits by David mentioned by Jean-François Robinet in 1889.
  1. A simple sketch in black pencil, included in the 1882 catalogue of David's works.  Three-quarters view, pensive and sombre, a little ferocious in expression; wearing a wig, white cravat, coat with a turned up collar.  Annotated "Croquis au crayon noir. Probablement de souvenir. Appartient à Saint-Albin". For Robinet, this is Michelet's Danton après.
  2. Ink sketch dated 1794.  Original in the museum in Lille; reproduced in an etching (à l'eau-forte). Shows Danton before the Tribunal of Fouquier-Tinville, in coat and catogan: old, villainous, ill-at-ease; a caricature, but still recognisable.  This must refer to the profile from the musée Wicar, though this is in pencil rather than pen and ink. Perhaps Robinet only saw the engraving.
  3. Caricature belonging to M. Chenavard, drawn at the café de l'Ecole as the tumbril passed.  Danton is shown standing, with his mouth open and his neck bare.
  4.  Drawing à sanguine showing Danton early in his career, young and vigorous. Robinet has seen a copy by St-Albin's daughter Hortense; the original is with the heirs of St-Albin's son Philippe.  In Robinet's view, this is Michelet's Danton avant.
  5.  A canvas (ie. an oil painting) which exists "somewhere in the world", showing Danton in 1791. It once belonged to St-Albin but has perhaps been sold, with the rest of his collection, to English buyers. 

3. Extract from the catalogue to the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, "Paris, City of Revolution", 28th March to 4th June 1989.   Edited by Jane Munro and David Scrase.


  1. Is the larger Carnavalet portrait poss by Boze? It is clearly related to the Boze studio Standing Deputies series image of Danton, and is 'the' standard portrait from which most of engravings derive (the neck-wear sometimes gets changed, but same head, position of head).

  2. Dr Duruy was a Saint-Albin descendant, so it will be one of the works from the family collection.
    The 3/4 view oil portrait that entered the Carnavalet from Hortense Jubinal de Saint Albin – I suspect may be by or derive from Boze. Compare with the 'standing deputies' series picture of Danton, from the Boze atelier. Rousselin also had the Boze Marat.


Print Friendly and PDF