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Work Leonidas at Thermopylae

Department of Prints and Drawings: 19th century

Léonidas aux Thermopyles

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo F. Raux

Prints and Drawings
19th century

Author(s):
Prat Louis-Antoine

Leonidas at Thermopylae occupied David for almost fifteen years. The painting, which had to respect all the principles of antiquity and "ideal beauty", depicts a tale of heroism drawn from Greek history: the sacrifice of Leonidas and three hundred Spartans who were massacred resisting the Persian armies as they invaded Greece, in the rocky gorges of Thermopylae (meaning "hot springs").

The heroes are tired

The painting of Leonidas at Thermopylae was finished the very year that Napoleon abdicated for the first time and evokes a military defeat transformed into a moral victory. Here we see Leonidas, in the center, naked and preparing for combat. On the left, a soldier carves on the wall of rock the famous phrase, "Go, passer-by, to Sparta tell/Obedient to her law we fell". Soldiers embrace before meeting their death, while others equip themselves with weapons or shields. In the background you can make out the ships of the Persian army.

An overworked painting?

David made many sketches for his composition, constantly changing the groups and the poses of the figures. In an early ensemble drawing (Musée Fabre, Montpellier), which has been dated around 1799, Leonidas was seen in three-quarter profile, and the groups around him were somewhat confusing. An immense landscape of rocks closed off the background. The Louvre drawing precedes the finished painting by a year and is obviously far closer to it than the Musée Fabre drawing. In the final painting, the tree on the right would have far fewer branches and leaves, in order to free up the background, where we can see a caravan of mules leaving what is about to become the battlefield.

A certain weightiness

The drawing was produced for an art lover, a friend of David's called Count Sommariva, but it actually remained in the painter's studio. It was purchased by the Louvre in the sale immediately after David's death, in 1826. The short, thickset proportions of the figures lend a certain heaviness to the composition. David worked extremely hard on his drawing, returning to it many times, which is partly why there is a certain feeling of coarseness about it, characterized by the stiff attitude of the figures in movement.

Bibliography

Prat Louis-Antoine et Rosenberg Pierre, Jacques-Louis David 1748-1825 : Catalogue raisonné des dessins, vol. I, Milan, Leonardo arte, 2002, n 316.

Technical description

  • Jacques-Louis DAVID (Paris, 1748-Brussels, 1825)

    Leonidas at Thermopylae

    1813

  • Pen, black ink and grey wash, white highlights, graphite pencil on paper

    H. 20.9 cm; W. 28.1 cm

  • Purchased at the sale after the death of David, Paris, 17 April 1826 and successive days, no. 27

    3926080

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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Additional information about the work

In pen with black ink: "L. David/1813"