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Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David depicts the Spartan King Leonidas before the final Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE. The crowded and theatrical scene is set at the mountain pass, where the Battle of Thermopylae was about to be fought. Thermopylae was chosen as the ideal location for a defensive action due to its narrow passage through the mountainous geography.

The narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae called “The Hot Gates” helped the Greeks make a stand against the numerically superior Persians, who were invading Greece. King Leonidas, the Spartan leader, successfully delayed the invasion of Darius I and the Persians to provide the Greeks the time they needed to organize what became a victorious longer-term resistance.

This act of bravery and sacrifice by King Leonidas and his three hundred soldiers inspired Jacques-Louis David as France waged its campaigns against rival European powers that wanted to restore France’s pre-revolutionary ancien régime. David completed the extensive work fifteen years after he began working on it in 1799. When he finished the painting in 1814, allied European powers were invading the First French Empire to topple the emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

David used the classical ideals of male virtue and beauty in his depiction of historical Greek warriors to convey an impression of heroic courage. In the background, hundreds of warriors are in chaos while the leader remains calm as the war preparations take place around him. The image of Leonidas draws the viewers’ eyes. He is bathed in light more than any other figure. Leonidas’s eyes are turned up toward the heavens as he contemplates his and his follower’s fate in the battle. Many of the figures are looking to Leonidas; his golden embroidered cape, helmet, and shield symbolize his strength and bravery.

On the top left, a soldier carves in rock the famous phrase in Greek:

“Go, passer-by, to Sparta tell
Obedient to her law we fell.”

Leonidas and his Spartans know their fate and are prepared to die, in the name of their country.

Leonidas

Leonidas I was the warrior king of the Greek city-state of Sparta, who led the allied Greek forces to a last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. While attempting to defend the pass from the invading Persian army, Leonidas was the leader of the 300 Spartans.

Leonidas was the husband of Gorgo, the famous Queen of Sparta. According to Plutarch, before the Battle of Thermopylae, knowing that her husband’s death in battle was inevitable, she asked him what to do. Leonidas replied:

“marry a good man who will treat you well, bear him children, and live a good life.”

Battle of Thermopylae

The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I. The battle took place over three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece, at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae called “The Hot Gates.”

The Persian invasion was a response to the defeat of the first Persian invasion of Greece, which had been ended by the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. By 480 BC Xerxes had amassed an enormous army and navy and set out to conquer all of Greece. The Athenian general Themistocles had proposed that the allied Greeks block the advance of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae, and simultaneously block the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium.

The Persian army, which vastly outnumbered Greeks, was held off until the Greek rear-guard was annihilated in one of history’s most famous last stands. During two full days of battle, Leonidas’s small force blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. After the second day, a local betrayed the Greeks by revealing a secret path used by shepherds. It led the Persians behind the Greek lines. Leonidas, aware that his force was being outflanked, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans fighting to the death.

One year later, the Greek army eventually defeated the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, thereby ending the Persian invasion. Historians have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending its native soil. The story of the Greeks is used as an example of the advantages of the strategic use of terrain as force multipliers. Leonidas at Thermopylae has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.

Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) was a French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era. In the 1780s, his history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and feeling, harmonizing with the moral climate of the final years of the Royal Régime.

David became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon. At this time, David developed his Empire style.

After Napoleon’s fall from Imperial power and the Bourbon revival, David exiled himself to Brussels, then in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, where he remained until his death. David had a large number of pupils, making him the most substantial influence in French art of the early 19th century, primarily academic Salon painting.

Leonidas at Thermopylae

  • Title:                       Leonidas at Thermopylae
  • French:                   Léonidas aux Thermopyles
  • Artist:                     Jacques-Louis David
  • Year:                       1814
  • Medium:                Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:           Height: 395 cm (12.9 ft); Width: 531 cm (17.4 ft)
  • Type:                      History Painting
  • Museum:               Louvre, Paris

Jacques-Louis David

A Tour of the Louvre

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“The artist must be a philosopher.”
– Jacques-Louis David

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Photo Credit: 1) Jacques-Louis David [Public domain]

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