Jacques Louis David’s 1814 canvas Leonidas at Thermopylae was first begun in 1798 as a partner work to The Intervention of the Sabine Women. This monumental history painting, rendered in the Neoclassical style, depicts a scene from 480 BC in which Leonidas, the King of Sparta, defended the Thermopylae pass against Xerxes’ army of invading Persians with only three hundred men. Each were killed but their stubborn defence ensured the Greek fleet’s retreat and made sure the group lived on in legend. In David’s imagined reproduction of the scene soldiers rush to gather their arms, as their commander sits pensively staring at the viewer, considering his fate. A patriotic, stirring, and profoundly busy image, this work certainly symbolizes the imminent decline of the French Republic which would occur only one year later at the Battle of Waterloo. Suffused with classical symbolism, David’s work conjures thoughts of sacrifice, fatalism, and collapse, as the party of men prepare to end their long battle in glory.
Leonidas at Thermopylae occupied the mind of David almost for the entire span of Napoleon’s rule over France. Greatly idealising the leader, the artist finished the work the year that Napoleon abdicated for the first time, and used this image to transform a catastrophic defeat into a moral victory. Making many preparatory sketches for the final work, repeatedly changing the poses of the figures and the protagonist Leonidas, many have wondered if the finished version is itself slightly overworked. Clustered amongst the timeless boulders of the past, the weight and heaviness of the figures resonate with the labors and dedication of the great artist. A departure from David’s usual austere style, Leonidas at Thermopylae is imbued with the emotional turbulence of a declining empire.
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