In 1789, Jacques-Louis David was forty-one years old. After winning the Prix de Rome in 1774, he had his first great success in 1785 with the Oath of the Horatii (Musée du Louvre). He who had not attended the Jeu de Paume Oath recognised in this revolutionary episode an event worthy of the ancient heroes. Nearly ten months after 20 June 1789, he began work on a monumental painting depicting the Jeu de Paume Oath, intended for the room where the members of the young National Assembly met. David thus took up the challenge of painting contemporary history. But political events above all, as well as the extent of the work involved and the difficulties in financing it, prevented David from carrying out his project. But we know the composition that David wanted to paint from this drawing, exhibited at the Salon of 1791. The painter put into it on a small scale and in tone-on-tone the entire composition of the painting of the Jeu de Paume Oath. The faces of the Assembly members are idealised, not true portraits. The drawing was exhibited in David’s studio at the end of May 1791 and then in the Salon (at the Louvre) in September of the same year. It was reproduced in an engraving in 1794 and again in 1823. The definitive work was due to measure about seven metres high by ten metres wide. It was to be painted in oils, and in colour. Bequeathed to the Louvre in 1886, the drawing is on deposit from the Louvre in the Palace of Versailles: this work recalls the proximity of the Palace with the Jeu de Paume room where the famous oath was taken.
Photo © EPV/ Jean-Marc Manaï