The Portrait of Delahaye

The Portrait of Delahaye
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Known to scholars only from photographs, this portrait by Jacques-Louis David—arguably the most important French painter of his time—has, until now, not been seen publicly. For two centuries it remained in the sitter’s family until it was sold at auction in Paris in June 2006 and acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with funds provided by The Ahmanson Foundation. Signed and dated 1815, the painting is the last portrait David executed in France, shortly before going into exile in Brussels.

In its striking directness, simplicity, and realism, Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye evokes Roman Republican portraiture, which David had studied and copied as a student in Rome. The subject is painted with great economy: Delahaye’s dark jacket and grey-blue vest set off a crisp white cravat and, with the plain muted background, effectively frame his expressive face. A glimmer of irony seems to brighten his eyes, as David has captured the knowing gaze of an intelligent man who had successfully navigated the political upheavals of the French revolution.

Jean-Pierre Delahaye was a lawyer accredited to the civil court, the scion of a bourgeois family long-established in Paris, who had helped David since 1812 with the management of his affairs. At the time of David’s exile, the artist appointed Delahaye his legal proxy in Paris. The exact circumstances surrounding the execution of the portrait are unknown. Perhaps it was a simple expression of friendship, perhaps it was a payment of sorts for Delahaye’s legal services.

Jacques-Louis David had extraordinary range as a portraitist. His official, commissioned portraits could convey the might of the powerful, or they could ridicule vanity and false pretense. In a more personal, intimate portrait like that of Jean-Pierre Delahaye, David analyzes the subtleties of human nature. Among his contemporaries, only the Spaniard Francisco Goya could claim such variety.

- J. Patrice Marandel. (2006)