Form and Composition in David's 'Belisarius Begging for Alms'

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Form in Jacques Louis David’s Belisarius Begging for Alms is very naturalistic and precise. David paints with a very tight technique, showing no sign of brush strokes. The forms are very definite and form geometric shapes that create that sense of naturalism in the work. The woman in the foreground has an arch in her back as she leans over; her form is shown through the curve of her body. Belisarius and the unknown child create a triangular shape, with the tips of their fingers the vertex of the triangle. This pyramidal formation leads our eye to the object the hands are pointing to- the woman. Through the careful use of tonal modelling, David illustrates three dimensionality, which is therefore very naturalistic. Tonal modelling is shown through the deep shadowing in forms of the painting. This deep shadowing creates a more believable volumetric space. For example, we get a sense of the figures’ volumetric space through the shadowing in the folds of the figures’ robes; which suggests the outlines and contours of the figures’ bodies.

The composition in Belisarius Begging for Alms draws attention to the key features and underlying motifs of the work. Belisarius himself is set in the foreground, with an unknown child, an unknown woman and a soldier from the Roman army. These figures are the main message of the story and are emphasised by their scale and centralism in the painting. Another significant feature set in the foreground is the temple outside which Belisarius is seated. The temple is placed in the foreground next to Belisarius as a contrast to his previous triumphs as a high-ranking General. It is to emphasise Belisarius’ fall as a ‘tragic hero.’ The city is set in the background to include its relevance to Belisarius. The city and its leader have cast Belisarius out onto the streets by incriminating him; furthermore one could say that the city is included to shed light on Belisarius’ personal background and how he came to be portrayed on the...
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