Jacques Louis David was heavily committed to the French Revolution and in this piece he displays a young boy who was to become a martyr for their movement. Joseph Bara is believed to have been a drummer in the French First Republic army who was sadly killed in a conflict with the Vendeens. He represented the growing resistance and his naked body found here underlines his innocence and also the cruelty of war. Such images would have been a rallying call for support and so was a politically motivated piece. Those without any connection to either side could still find the same sadness at the loss of a young life, seemingly in the pursuit of true freedom. To find his body laid out alone, in the wilderness and with an expression of fear still apparent, would evoke strong emotions in us all, whether we would choose to take a political side or not.
The horrors of war have long been used by artists as inspiration for their work. Few elements of humanity are as shocking and powerful as those from the battlefield and many have tapped into that. Frequently, there has also been a moral under current around this theme, attempting to remind us all that war is not just about victory and prestige, as some artists would like to suggest. Modern interpretations of interest would have to include The Face of War by Salvador Dali and also Guernica by Pablo Picasso, with both Spaniards using their impressive technical skills and innovative ideas to paint a negative picture of war. On the opposing side, we of course find many positive depictions of the spoils of war, normally from court painters from the Baroque and more recent movements which attempt to revel in the success of their employers.
The painting from 1794 is now to be found at the Musée Calvet in Avignon. The Musée des Beaux-arts de Lille, also in France, holds a near identical copy from the same year, but this one has not been successfully attributed as yet. Jacques Louis David is known to have produced several paintings based around the theme of martyrdom, normally related to the French Revolution. These included the extraordinary The Death of Marat, as well also The Last Moments of Michel Lepeletier. These sombre pieces all marked a clear divide with the Greek-inspired tragic scenes that also litter much of this artist's career, though both streams of work deserve substantial academic respect for their various qualities.