Cover image for Chains: David, Canova, and the Fall of the Public Hero in Postrevolutionary France By Satish Padiyar


David, Canova, and the Fall of the Public Hero in Postrevolutionary France

Satish Padiyar


$84.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02963-4

240 pages
9.5" × 10"
19 color/25 b&w illustrations


David, Canova, and the Fall of the Public Hero in Postrevolutionary France

Satish Padiyar

“An outstanding work of great importance. . . . Chains uses art to make broader claims about subjectivity in general and gay subjectivity in particular that are entirely novel and provocative.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
One of Jacques-Louis David’s most ambitious and darkly enigmatic paintings, Leonidas at the Pass of Thermopylae, hangs today in the Louvre, largely ignored. Focusing on this painting, Chains embarks on a discourse about the perception of the body, sexuality, and subjectivity in early nineteenth-century European art.

In addition to David, Chains explores the sculptural oeuvre of David’s contemporary and rival, Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. Padiyar argues that, like David’s postrevolutionary work, Canova’s innovative sculptures embodied a new, distinctively modern type of subjectivity. The book aims to take a fresh view of the status of the male body in the work of these two late neoclassical artists by linking them in novel, sometimes unexpected ways with key figures of the late Enlightenment. In postrevolutionary Europe, philosophical and literary figures such as Immanuel Kant and the Marquis de Sade pushed the language of neoclassicism to its limits. Chains argues that such innovations produced a new, distinctively sexed, politicized, and aestheticized heroic male body that emerged as an incidental aftereffect of the French Revolution.

“An outstanding work of great importance. . . . Chains uses art to make broader claims about subjectivity in general and gay subjectivity in particular that are entirely novel and provocative.”
“This is an unusually intelligent and original study. It offers, by way of a detailed discussion of David’s most significant and ideologically charged late painting, Leonidas at the Pass of Thermopylae, a truly novel perspective on the larger significance of new tendencies in French neoclassical painting and aesthetics in the complex and politically fraught postrevolutionary period of the early nineteenth century.”
“The writings are thoughtfully arranged and the images included are mostly color. Substantive notes and an appendix enhance the text.”
“Kantian and psychoanalytic versions of subjectivity sit back-to-back. To read this lucid and complex book-–also beautifully produced-–is to feel how these chains, intertwining, tug at us still.”
“Intellectual historians will no doubt have much to say, pro and con, about the claims that surround Padiyar’s account of Leonidas at Thermopylae. Whatever their arguments, however, they will learn a great deal about art along the way. Art historians, for their part, will encounter an important emerging voice in the discipline that defies safe predictability.”

Satish Padiyar is an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. He is an Associate Research Scholar at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, where he teaches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art.


List of Illustrations



1. Heroism After the French Revolution: Davids Leonidas at Thermopylae

2. Inheriting Greek Eros: Anacreontism and Homosexual Desire

3. Kant and the Postrevolutionary Subject: The Aesthetics of Freedom

4. Subject and Surface: Canova and the Reinvention of Classical Sculpture

5. Sade/David, in Chains


Select Bibliography



This book is about the entanglement of art, politics, sexuality, and subjectivity in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Its “moment” is that of the first two decades of the nineteenth century, an epoch that marks a crucial passage in the transition from late neoclassicism to modernity. It was a time when late Enlightenment patterns of thought about the status of art and the artist, the order of sexuality, politics, and self-consciousness, were all being thoroughly renegotiated in response to the radically destabilizing effects of the Revolution. Chains refracts these concerns through the work of the late-neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), a critical figure in art-historical narratives. In recent years David has come to represent at once the paradigmatic art/politics relation, the breakdown of classical language and vision, and the inauguration of a certain modernist art practice.

These concerns are refracted through one work of David. I begin and end Chains with detailed examinations of David’s late heroic history painting, Leonidas at the Pass of Thermopylae (frontispiece), and throughout I return frequently, back “home,” to it again. Having been labored over for almost fifteen years, David’s beautiful painting—dark, massive, and yet intricate to the point of being overwrought—was finally completed in the summer of 1814. It was the artist’s final, testamentary, and most ambitious statement on the meaning of the French Revolution, through which he had worked and lived. I focus upon it because, I will argue, it uniquely and unguardedly reveals to us how profoundly and irrevocably the Revolutionary event had altered his self-consciousness and that of his culture, and how it continued to do so into the nineteenth century. Through Leonidas, we will see how aesthetics, politics, the self, and sexuality were all reconfigured in the two decades following the French Revolution, decades that proved to be critical to the formation of what we have become.

Curiously, in histories of David, this intriguing work is largely absent. It is surprising how little sustained commentary it has received. Some of the more important recent David studies—Norman Bryson’s Tradition and Desire, Thomas Crow’s Emulation, Régis Michel’s David: L’art et le politique, and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s Necklines—touch upon it, but all too briefly. And when it is invoked, this is done only to dismiss it, or even to revile it. For the painting is seen to represent a decline from David’s earlier, more radical artistic language: once radical, David has now fallen into impotent nostalgia (Crow), receding into dead tradition (Bryson), or simply, and perhaps most startlingly, become depressingly “vacuous” (Lajer-Burcharth). In otherwise brilliant and sympathetic writing on David, such denigration of this painting might perhaps be due to the fact that it simply puzzles its modern viewers. It is precisely because of the intransigence of the image—its resistance to interpretation—that for some ten years now Leonidas has continued to obsess me.

What should puzzle modern viewers about this painting? On the one hand, it looks to be a historical anachronism: unlike David’s earlier great prerevolutionary and Revolutionary canvases—Oath of the Horatii, Brutus, Marat at His Last Breath, Bara—each of which in its own way is especially revealing of its complex historical moment and of David’s entanglement in it, Leonidas is generally seen to be irrelevant to, contradicting, the transformed social, political, and sexual conditions of postrevolutionary France. Retrograde David is finally, and tragically, out of step with his historical moment. On the other hand, the paintiong tends to elude the interpretive frameworks by which we have come to understand David’s art. No longer is it politically engaged art; no longer does it radically explore the discontinuities of classical language. Instead, David has given up on reinventing history painting for a modern era.

Leonidas appears to contradict current assumptions about the state of art, politics, and subjectivity in early nineteenth-century France. On the one hand, stylistically, just when the certainties of classical language are yielding to the anxiety of a modern painterly language (think of the dark Géricault), David reasserts the “retrograde” neoclassical vocabulary of the beau idéal (Ideal Beauty, incarnated in the profusion of naked male bodies). Politically, on the other hand, David’s invocation of an exemplary—and pederastic—ancient Spartan heroic community appears to hark back to an earlier, more utopian, “fraternal” Revolutionary moment (1793, say), one that, with the consolidation of an early-nineteenth-century bourgeois “politics of reaction,” is supposed, in 1814, to be long surpassed. If one is reminded here of Karl Marx’s analysis of the French Revolutionaries’ invocation of ancient Greek and Roman heroism as only a temporary masking of emergent bourgeois interests—one that, with the early-nineteenth-century triumph of that competitive, money-making class, could quickly be shed—David surely seems to entertain this illusion far beyond its historical usefulness. He clings to it improperly. Clings improperly too to that “aesthetic of loss,” which, as Ewa Lajer-Burcharth has eloquently argued, characterized David’s art, and his subjectivity, in the difficult post-Thermidorean years between 1794 and 1799. In this interpretation David, through Leonidas, simply indulges his disconsolate feelings at the loss of his beloved Revolution, draws out his suffering inappropriately. Leonidas begins now to look like a mortifying monumentalization of once-radical gestures and bodies, strewn, cadaver-like, over a tableau, which has no logic other than David’s impotent, recursive, and obsessive clinging to the fragments of memories of his Revolution: Leonidas as personal relic. Shocking, too, that post-Marxist T. J. Clark’s David, the figure that is seen to inaugurate modernist contingency (of-the-moment-ness, risk, as in his Marat of 1793) should, with Leonidas, so unexpectedly fall into the category of the historically outmoded, into the futility of personal reverie.

One of the reigning assumptions in the historiography of the postrevolutionary period is that the so-called “politics of reaction,” from the late 1790s onward, put an end to a period of radical change in France. In this version the more radical possibilities opened up by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—in politics, art, sexuality, and subjectivity—were irrevocably closed off. On the contrary, in this book I examine how David and his contemporaries continued to work through, and respond to, problems originally opened up by that utterly transforming event of the French Revolution. Against the notion that David’s Leonidas is a sad—too sad—echo of his earlier radical heroic self, I will take the painting’s peculiarity seriously, to see whether it might open up an alternative “radical” history of the postrevolutionary moment. For if it is true that the exception occasionally tests the rule, that the anomaly puts pressure on the understanding of the norm, such a painting may become, in unexpected ways, especially revealing.

Chains, then, is an attempt to rethink the early-nineteenth-century moment through the very peculiarity of this single work of art. In it I shall link David to some of the more modernizing tendencies in early-nineteenth-century neoclassicism; to Immanuel Kant, to the Marquis de Sade, to Antonio Canova, all figures that, postrevolution, pushed classical language to a limit. Leonidas is the site of the interplay of these apparently disparate materials, the concrete instance of their peculiar historical collision. What is hoped for is a “reciprocal illumination.”

The book begins with politics, and with the dilemma of David’s postrevolutionary political subjectivity. Leonidas at Thermopylae is rethought here as a politically urgent image. This task is made peculiarly difficult because of the painting’s unusually long and complex gestation. David spent some fourteen years working it, revising it, only to rethink it radically, and bring it to a hasty completion in the summer of 1814. Accompanying the image’s halting emergence were seismic shifts in political power, from revolutionary republicanism, to Empire authoritarianism, to Restoration monarchism. So how, through the painting, did David negotiate the sea changes that occurred between 1799 and 1814? Might we read the many—and rather complicated—revisions of the work as both registering and responding to unforeseen shifts in power, as recording David’s shock at the betrayal and suppression of a radically Revolutionary egalitarianism that he had once espoused and reflecting on the possibility of its futurity? How might David posit the continuing possibility of a heroic radical self in postrevolutionary France against attempts at its effacement by the overweening authoritarian politics of Bonapartism? If Leonidas challenges us to open the archives of a radical politics within its “reactionary” moment, how might the painting itself function as an archive, wherein David’s continuing radical political subjectivity is deposited and protected? In seeking answers to these questions, we will need to move between the painting’s formal incoherence—this oddly fragmented, gap-ridden, fissured composition—and the rapidly self-transforming, fractured politics of early-nineteenth-century France.

The beautiful bodies of Leonidas are also the site of an erotic plenitude. I shall explore these erotic dimensions of French neoclassical art and the sexual politics of the body in neoclassicism. In recent years the study of David, and, more generally, of late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century French art, has been transformed by feminist and feminist-inspired explorations of gender and gendered embodiment. Notably, the work of Alex Potts, Carol Ockman, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and Ewa-Lajer Burcharth has opened up important new ways of viewing the gender politics that is being played out in postrevolutionary neoclassical projections of the male body. In some of these accounts Leonidas is seen as the locus classicus of a postrevolutionary order of gender in which women have been removed from (visual and political) representation: David’s image is seen to collude, symptomatically, with a violent bourgeois patriarchy. A gay response to the image, on the other hand, one that would freely enjoy it, might insist that its invocation of a pederastic community rather offends an early-nineteenth-century bourgeois order, one that surely suppressed both women and “sodomites,” rendering the image’s sexual politics therefore antipatriarchal. In short, these bodies are contested. Both Chapters 2 and 5 focus upon them, and my concern is with regimes of sexuality rather than those of gender. How, specifically, might Leonidas be thought as a repository of gay histories?

In Chapter 2, I turn to a literary genre—the neoclassical “anacreontic”—in order to examine the problems involved in representing gay desire in French neoclassical representation and its canonical projection of the ephebic male nude. I do this through posing questions raised by the translation of the classics. Taking as an example Anacreon’s notoriously sexually charged Ode XXIX—Portrait of Bathylle—I ask how certain paradigmatic “gay” moments in ancient classical texts, which came to be reiterated by the neoclassicists, were translated into the language of modernity, into neoclassical codes of representation that were themselves being constantly renegotiated. What problems—philological, moral, aesthetic—were encountered in the space of the act of translation? How might a certain sexed subjectivity get forged in that difficult space between ancient and modern, through the processes of cultural citation and recitation of the ancient “source” text in neoclassical France? I examine these problems by tracing the long history of translations—from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century—of an original caesura, or gap, in Portrait of Bathylle, which was taken to represent an unspeakable gay or “sodomitic” moment. I discuss the strategies neoclassical translators adopted to convey this moment of silence and then look at the historically specific and often surprising responses of its unsettled neoclassical translators and commentators. As the genre of anacreontism became a crucial site for the production of homoerotic imagery, both literary and visual, it came to infiltrate David’s Leonidas, by which time, we will see, it was rendered scandalously “sodomitic” to its early-nineteenth-century bourgeois audience.

The ideal male nude was not only an erotically charged figure but was also a figure of high philosophical value. To think David and his postrevolutionary culture through a radical philosophical figure of the late Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, is the task of Chapter 3. Kant’s philosophy of freedom was intimately linked to the libertarian ideals of the French Revolution. Indeed, Kant’s philosophy may be understood as a rigorous and rationalistic thinking through—on the level of philosophy—of a radically egalitarian politics that was only glimpsed by the French Revolutionaries, and of its consequences for a renewed subjectivity, or self-consciousness.

During the Revolution, David’s self-emancipation from a “chained” old regime subject to a “free” new regime subject was performed through his art and his politics. On the one hand, his crucial involvement with the abolition of the artistic academy betokened the emergence of the modern artist as, for the first time, freely acting and autonomous. On the other hand, in his paintings, and especially in his projections of the ideal male nude, David projected a subject struggling for freedom. The Bara of 1794 is perhaps the most intense and moving example of this. And yet, if David’s Revolutionary embodiment of a newly freed subject is one that is always struggling—that never quite achieves the state of freedom it desires—and if the political Revolution finally failed to instate the egalitarian social utopia that it, and its artists, had envisioned—how might Kant, and Kantian philosophy, intervene in postrevolutionary France to deliver the early-nineteenth-century subject’s continuing impulsion to freedom? In Chapter 3, I examine this possibility by tracing the historical vicissitudes of the concept of Ideal Beauty in French art discourse, for I suggest that in the late 1790s and early 1800s the concept of Beauty—and its corporeal representation, the ideal male nude—underwent a Kantian turn. In his continuing commitment to a neoclassical beau idéal, one that, through Kant, was revised and radicalized, David will be understood here as an emerging modern Kantian subject, one that, even within the early-nineteenth-century “politics of reaction,” continues to enjoy and practice its—sodomitic—freedom. If, in this narrative, Napoleon is the figure of David’s entrapment, Kant is that of his liberation. Kant, I will argue, frees David (again).

The book continues to probe this emerging early-nineteenth-century Kantian aesthetic as it is exemplified and problematized in relation to a different body of work, and to a different medium. In Chapter 4 (an excursus), I examine the work of David’s friend and contemporary, the modernizing neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. Canova in many ways is a more revealing figure than David through which to expose the tensions and contradictions involved in projecting the classical body—indeed the body per sein accordance with its new Kantian significance. I focus therefore on Canova’s distinctive facture, his obsessive polishing of marble, and suggest that a certain pseudo-Kantian subjectivity becomes lodged, if problematically, in the space of the surface of Canova’s sculptural bodies. Through Canova, the skin of the reinvented classical sculptural object—its luminous, sensual envelope—becomes the site of an early-nineteenth-century modern subjectivity. If this is an effect of the making of the work of art, it is also one of its consumption. The distinctive manner in which audiences viewed, and ecstatically enjoyed, Canova’s sculptures—audiences that of course viewed the profusion of “marmoreal” bodies in David’s Leonidas with the same eye—might be likened to a pseudo-Kantian “free” experience of the Beautiful, one, I will suggest, that is co-extensive with an emerging aesthetic of modernity.

Sexual scandal is not usually associated with David, but it certainly is with his prochain, the Marquis de Sade. To explore the sexual and political (and sexual-political) implications of Leonidas’s “perverse” economy of desire, I bring together these two revolutionaries, David and Sade. The site of an unlikely encounter between “Sade/David,” and of a mutual contamination, is perhaps not so much the sodomitical body per se, but rather a certain way of enchaining male bodies in postrevolutionary France, which is exemplified in David’s Leonidas, as it is in Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir (1795). I argue that this might be seen to signify radical Revolutionary principles of egalitarianism—or the embodiment of community as such. But if these “perverse” chains of bodies—invoked in the title of this book—were immanent in French Revolutionary reformulations of the body politic and of the law, they are only fully, and (im)properly, worked out in the wake of the Revolution, through the perversity that links this dual subject Sade/David.

Clearly, to illuminate the sodomitic semantics of Leonidas as commensurate with a radical libertarian discourse of freedom—to think David and his Leonidas through Sade and Kant—renders the politics of this book “gay.” And yet it is not my intention to speak from, or to confirm, a position of established identity. This is not only for personal reasons; although writing about French culture as an Indian within a British academic institution no doubt reconfirms my abiding sense of not being “at home” anywhere. Rather, the academy from which this study emerges—art history in the university—is, I would say, a unique space, which allows us the freedom to practice an endless displacement between various identity-based critical positions. It allows us the unlikely possibility of enjoying a homelessness. Chains therefore moves freely, and critically, between queer studies, gay studies, Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis, each of which thrillingly projects a David who yet belongs to no one of them.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.