What's Going On in This Drawing?

Lictors and Bodies / David

This drawing portrays the aftermath of a man's decision to condemn his sons to death. It is a moral fable about sacrificing one's own interests for the good of the state.

Brutus was a Roman magistrate who had led the fight to overthrow the corrupt monarchy and establish a republic. When he learned that his own sons had plotted to restore the monarchy, he faced an agonizing decision—pardon their crime or sentence them to the appropriate punishment of death. He condemned them to death, showing the importance of placing duty above sentiment.

David places Brutus in the left front of this drawing, giving him a stony expression and bathing him in shadow. Behind him, lictors (Roman officers) bring the sons' bodies into Brutus's home on stretchers. With upheld arms (right), Brutus's wife reaches out in desperation toward her dead sons. Her daughters collapse beneath her in sorrow.

This drawing is a study for a monumental oil painting completed in 1789, the year the French Revolution began.