The Dutch patriot, Jacobus Blauw (1756–1829), played an important role in the foundation of the Batavian Republic in 1795. Although short-lived, it significantly contributed to the transformation of the Netherlands from a confederated structure into a democratic unitary state.
Blauw and the artist, Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), shared the political ideals of the French Revolution that were sweeping across Europe in the 1790s, and the bond between the two men is evident in the relaxed intimacy of this portrait. David depicts the diplomat Blauw as he pauses while writing, his clothes and possessions painted in meticulous detail.
There are only two paintings by David in Britain – this, and the National Gallery’s Portrait of Comtesse Vilain XIIII and her Daughter.
A man sits at a table, leaning forward slightly as he writes on a document. He pauses, as if to think for a moment or to acknowledge someone, his subdued but intense gaze producing an effect of great presence. He is elegantly dressed, but his plain clothes are not ostentatious. Unlike an aristocrat, he does not wear a wig; instead, it is his own hair that is powdered.
The simple format of this picture is similar to portraits David painted just a few years earlier, during the initial years of the French Revolution, in which an isolated figure is placed before a neutral background. However, the sparseness of those portraits is tempered here. Various objects – an inkwell, a gilt box, a quill pen – create a recognisable, everyday environment. David also paints Blauw’s clothing and accessories in meticulous detail: you can see traces of hair powder on the jacket’s collar and a hint of red reflected in its gleaming buttons. David’s skill with colour is especially evident as he coordinates the deep blue of the coat, turquoise-green of the tablecloth, pink handkerchief and hint of red chair fabric against a plain grey-brown background.
Jacobus Blauw was an important figure in the Dutch Patriotic movement, which helped establish the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands. Although short-lived, it contributed to the transformation of the Netherlands from a confederated structure into a democratic unitary state. Soon after the Republic’s formation, the French army invaded the Netherlands. Blauw was sent to Paris as the Dutch representative to negotiate a peace settlement – the Treaty of The Hague of 1795 – by which France recognised the new republic. While in Paris, Blauw most likely commissioned the portrait directly from David, as both shared a commitment to the republican ideals of the French Revolution. Their bond is evident in the relaxed intimacy of the painting, which makes this more than just a formal portrait of a civic official. Blauw’s new political status, following the treaty, is indicated on the paper, which bears the words J. BLAUW, ministre Plènipotentiaire aux États Généraux des provinces unies (‘J.BLAUW, minister Plenipotentiary to the Estates General of the United Provinces’).
David was the most important artist and propagandist of the French Revolution. Elected a Deputy to the National Convention, he had been instrumental in the abolition of the Académie and had voted for the execution of Louis XVI. A supporter of Revolutionary leader Robespierre, he was imprisoned twice after Robespierre had been deposed and only narrowly avoided execution himself. His signature, ‘L. David 4’, dates the work using the calendar created by the French Republic, revealing his continuing endorsement of the Revolution. You can see it within the folds of Blauw’s cape, in the lower left corner of the painting.
For David, the diplomat-intellectual Blauw, who was not yet 40, represented a new type of post-Revolutionary citizen – someone who maintained the aspirations of the Revolution and whose achievements were based upon ability rather than inherited status. Blauw, writing to David, thanked him profusely for bringing him to ‘life again on the canvas’.
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