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Here's one guy who can carry a room

A strikingly lifelike portrait by masterful Jacques-Louis David has a wall of its own in its debut at LACMA.

October 18, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

One hundred and ninety-one years after it was created, a year after heirs of the original owner decided to sell it at auction, four months after the Los Angeles County Museum of Art snapped it up for $2.7 million, Jacques-Louis David's "Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye" is making its public debut. The startlingly realistic painting of a white-haired attorney with an equivocal gaze is the centerpiece of a small exhibition opening Thursday at LACMA.

Billed as "a rediscovered masterpiece," the portrait had remained in the family of the sitter since it was painted. Reproductions of it had been published, but it had never been exhibited and its whereabouts were unknown to art historians until it turned up at a Christie's auction last June in Paris. The Ahmanson Foundation provided funds for the museum to buy the painting, the most expensive item in a $9-million sale of Old Master and 19th century works.

"It's just a great event when you have an opportunity to bring something like this to Los Angeles," says LACMA Director Michael Govan. "It makes you feel so good when a surprise as beautiful as this emerges."

J. Patrice Marandel, LACMA's curator of European art who pursued the painting, feared the museum would be outbid because the auction attracted a lot of attention.

"I am thrilled with this portrait," he says, walking into a gallery where the David has a wall of its own, flanked by related works from the museum's permanent collection. "It's amazing how it carries across the room. That's a sign of greatness."

A giant in art history who lived from 1748 to 1825, David was the leader of the French Neoclassical movement and Napoleon's official painter. Best known for reinterpreting classical subjects with high moral purpose and exquisite visual clarity, he produced "The Oath of the Horatii" and "Brutus and His Dead Sons," at the Louvre, and "The Death of Socrates," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A champion of the French Revolution, David also expressed his feelings about tragedies of his time, commemorating French republican martyrs in dramatic works such as "The Death of Marat" at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels.

"Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye" is a relatively straightforward portrayal of an obscure figure, a solicitor of the courts of Paris and friend of the artist who handled his business affairs. The portrait is the last painting David made in Paris, after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and before the artist fled to Brussels. The exact circumstances of the work's creation are unknown, but the portrait epitomizes the artist's ability to infuse his subjects with psychological depth and complexity.

"I love the expression on his face," Marandel says. "He still has his head on his shoulders, which was not true of a lot of other people at the time. He has an ironic air. He looks intelligent, perhaps a bit shifty in his eyes. I think it's a very engaging portrait."

Govan agrees.

"You don't have to be a student of European painting to get it," he says. "What strikes you immediately is not that it's a portrait by David, but that you are staring at the eyes of this man who seems to be living. And then you imagine David fleeing France and think of this man as someone who had done many things for him and helped him sell paintings. We don't know whether it was paid for. Perhaps it was payment for services. Perhaps it was a favor. You get that sense of directness, one man looking into the eyes of another. You see it also in the freshness with which it's painted, down to the detail of the hair and the powder on the shoulder. I think that's what makes it so accessible."

The painting was in very good condition because it had been kept in a family and never subjected to potentially harmful treatment, Marandel says. LACMA conservator Joseph Fronek simply gave it a light cleaning, removed discolored varnish and applied a fresh coat of varnish, revealing details and bits of color.

The painting is the first David in LACMA's collection, but it joins several other works by the artist in West Coast museums: a painting at the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego, three paintings and three drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum and two paintings, two drawings and two prints at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

In the exhibition at LACMA, "Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye" is accompanied by works of other artists made from 1790 to 1815. Portraits are on the long wall to the left of the David; works by his students, to the right.

"We wanted to show off our collection," Marandel says. But no matter how good the other works may be, they don't measure up to the David, he says. "You see the difference between genius and great talent."

Govan regards the new acquisition as an emblem of growth at what is still a very young museum, which opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1965.

"We are very much in a building phase, and that's not just buildings, it's art," he says. "That's the core of what we are doing. Part of my effort here is to get people involved in collecting and in the thrill of bringing artistic treasures to the public. The Ahmanson Foundation has been doing it for years. We need to broaden that and continue to build."

suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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