The biblical subject, taken from the book of Samuel, was probably proposed to the artist by Louis-Philippe: David's triumphant victory over Goliath aroused the jealousy of King Saul who desired his death. But David succeeded in calming the king's tormented spirit by playing the harp. This scene is rarely depicted in painting: the most famous work was most certainly painted by Rembrandt in 1657, and kept at the Maurithshuis, The Hague.
Evocative of the questionings of an old man, the subject must have pleased Gros who was going through a period of doubt and revaluation at the time. Indeed, under the Empire, he was recognized as one of the greatest painters of the Napoleonic era and appreciated as such by the critics and the public. But, after the fall of the Empire, and David's exile, Gros took David's position as Professor at the school of Fine Arts and thus became the leader of the neo-classical movement, at a time when the public started rejecting this movement and its great historical subjects, and when romantic ideas were born. Gros thus painted this ambitious composition at a time when he was being mistreated by the critics and cold-shouldered by the public.
Presented in the Salon of 1822 with the following title : David introduit près de Saül pour dissiper par l'harmonie de sa harpe les sombres idées dont ce roi était tourmenté (David introduced near Saul to dissipate through harmony and his harp the somber ideas tormenting the King), it was praised by some for its "oriental" poetry and "feeling", but criticized by others, in particular for its strong red colour. Yet Gros certainly chose this general red tone deliberately as it envelops Saul and invades the rooms of the palace glimpsed on the right; symbolizing the king's mood, it gives the scene a strange atmosphere and romantic character. On the left, dominating the composition, a blond David with a shining halo plays the harp, introduced by the young Michol ; his attitude is serene and calm, and contrasts strongly with Saul who appears agitated and gnawed by his internal demons. Perhaps Gros identified with Saul and expressed here his suffering and his desire for peace through music or art.
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