By Nicholas Mirzoeff
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Extra resources for Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and the Ideal Figure (Visual Cultures)
This painting of the blinded Roman general has recently been hailed by art historian Michael Fried as the first truly modern painting, in which David can be seen ‘reinventing the art of painting’ (Fried 1983:160). Fried in effect proposes that the picture itself postulates a certain blindness in that it is constructed without the needs of a spectator in mind. He argues that David followed Diderot’s remark in his Salon of 1767: A scene represented on a canvas or on stage does not suppose witnesses’ (Fried 1983:97).
In this view, the royal artists of the Academy could then claim connection to the sacred person of the king and imbibe something of his divine essence from his aura. Bourdon, however, also insisted on a literal interpretation of blindness: By the Action of the first blind Man, his Faith and Confidence in him who istouching him is expressed; in the second, the Favour he is asking is likewiseshown. It is common for Persons who are deprived of any one of the fiveSenses to have the rest better and more subtle; because the Spirits whichmove in them, to make them known what they want, move with greater forcehaving fewer Offices to perform; thus they who have lost their Sight, have amore acute Hearing, and a more sensible Touch.
The inscription reads ‘Date obolum Belisario’ (Give an obol to Belisarius). In the first version of the painting, it is slightly obscured by Belisarius’ staff, but it is prominent in the later copy now in the Louvre. This tag does not feature in Marmontel’s text, or any of the other painted versions of the Belisarius story before and after David’s work. In itself, it requires a beholder, for only a spectator of the image would be in a position to read it. Furthermore, only an outside beholder would need such an inscription for all the figures painted by David are only too aware of the identity of the general.