Throughout history, ideals such as heroism and patriotism as well as concepts such as war and violence, have acquired different connotations. During the 19th century, they had a positive connotation. With the occurrence of revolutions war and violence was justified under the ideals of patriotism and heroism. During the 21st century, society began to was in the process of developing a more sophisticated view. The century was even more violent than the 19th century with conflicts such as the world wars and in particular the Vietnam War. Yet they were no longer were justified outright by ideals. America, for example, began to question its involvement in the Vietnam War for a number of reasons. Two artists, two centuries apart, attempted to capture the feelings of the society of their time period. Jacques-Louis David produced a neo-classical piece entitled Leonidas at Thermopylae that idealized war with heroic and patriotic themes. Leon Golub’s Vietnam II displays the more realistic horrors of war as well as reflects Americans’ growing disconnect from their role in the Vietnam War.
Jacques-Louis David was the most prominent and influential painter of the Neo-classical artistic movement in France. He completed Leonidas at Thermopylae in 1815. David wrote extensively about his intentions for the work in the anonymously published Explication (1814). He wrote that he wanted calm acceptance and contemplation to rule the piece.
The subject of David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae is Leonidas who was a king of Sparta. In 480 BC, Leonidas fought against the invading Persian Army of Xerxes at the pass at Thermopylae. Although, Leonidas and his 300 men were vastly outnumbered by the Persian army, the managed to defend the pass in order to ensure the safe retreat of the Greek fleet. None of the 300 men survived, yet their story and heroic deeds live on in contemporary lore.
David depicts Leonidas and his men in the final moments before battle. At the center and focus of the painting, David has placed Leonidas sitting on a rock. He seems to be thinking about the fate of himself and his men. While Leonidas is looking stoically at the viewer, flurries of activity are occurring around him. To Leonidas’s right, sentinel trumpeters sound the call to arms increasing the sense of the movement. Seated at his feet is his wife’s brother Agis, awaiting orders. Behind Leonidas, are three figures lifting up wreaths about two altars to Hercules and Aphrodite. Two very young warriors are by Leonidas after refusing to carry a message so that they could stay and fight. A man inscribes the words “Passer-by, tell Sparta that her sons died for her” on the rock. All of the figures are ready to die for the glory of Sparta.
David painted Leonidas at Thermopylae using oil on canvas. He had “an extremely laborious working procedure, in which draughtsman ship played a major role”. He made countless studies in preparing for the painting. He would...