This King David is one of those works in which the master of French Symbolism merged the science of his art and his refined technique with the magical quality of a subject which he regarded as one of the most beautiful that he ever depicted. Were it not for the inscription 'David' added by the artist himself at the bottom of the sheet and for the writings in which he describes the exact iconography of the work, it would be difficult to interpret its precise meaning, because the subject's treatment goes so far beyond the bounds of conventional usage. In fact, contrary to what might be assumed at first sight, the subject of the work is not David playing his harp at the feet of Saul, but an aging King David, alone in his twilight years, being visited by an angel who has come to collect the patriarch's last songs.
Although the subject of the biblical King David, very common in 16th and 17th century painting, was less popular in the 19th century, Gustave Moreau seems to have taken a particular interest in the theme. The notion of music and art alleviating the suffering of the old king – described by Gustave Moreau as meditating on the "divine mysteries of immortality" – profoundly inspired the artist, who returned to the subject in another work in a different format and medium (Los Angeles, Hammer Collection). According to the Moreau expert, Pierre-Louis Mathieu, the present work must be a few years earlier than the Los Angeles painting, which was exhibited in 1878: the watercolour could not have been executed after 1871, when Charles Gavard, to whom it was dedicated, died.
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