David and the Parisian art scene

(Important in The Mistaken Wife)

By 1797, the date of The Mistaken Wife, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) had eschewed politics for art.  Already an important painter at the time of the Revolution, his activities during the Reign of Terror had led to incarceration when Robespierre was toppled.  Emerging from prison in 1795, David was invited to join the Institute of France, the successor to the French Royal Academy.  He had not enjoyed a tranquil relationship with the Academy, in part because he had chafed under its strict rules of instruction.  The Institute, however, did not have a pedagogical function – students would be guided solely by their mentors.  This suited David very well, as he was an extremely popular and devoted teacher, attracting students of all types and backgrounds.  The only tensions in his atelier were created by a group of radical students, known as the Primitifs or Penseurs who thought that David’s work had not gone far enough toward achieving a classical form.  In addition to their artistic theories, they were particularly notable for their physical non-conformity, adopting beards and dressing in classical tunics, oriental tunics, and sheepskin cloaks, as Mary observed when she visited David’s atelier.