Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Alphonse Leroy is widely recognised as among the painter’s greatest portraits. In its sobriety, its scientific attention to surface effects and details, and its effort to produce an image of its sitter as psychologically complex, it forms a direct line to his many later, exceptional depictions of Napoleon Bonaparte.
David’s portrait of Leroy says as much about the social identity of the figure of the artist as it does about its subject. In his sparsely furnished study, wearing a turban, and taking notes from his copy of Hippocrates’ The Diseases of Women, the gynaecologist is seen as something of an ascetic genius. So, in turn, is the artist; he is, as the contemporary definition of genius asserted, one gifted with powers of close observation and the ability to imitate nature above those of ordinary men and women.