He was not the kind of person to meet impromptu for a cup of coffee. He wasn’t casual enough. You can’t ever picture him without a shirt and tie – or as men wore in his day, the 18th century: long waistcoat, vest, and shirt with frills.

Very formal, very ceremonial. That was Jacques-Louis David. You can tell this from both his words and pictures. First, the pictures, which are as formal as it gets. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is showing his drawings that are so formal, they look like paintings made with a pencil.

The subject of David’s sketching is the sort of thing you find in history paintings - very detailed, very finished, and yes, very formal.

Battle of the Romans and Sabines typifies David’s enthusiasm for classical antiquity. The figures’ poses conjure images of Roman statues. So does their skin, which has the look of smooth stone.

Imitation of life

Art historians Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves quoted David in their 1972 Book “Artists on Art,” talking about his Battle of the Romans and Sabines to his students: “I want to work in a pure Greek style. I feed my eyes on antique statues, I even have the intention of imitating some of them...”

Yet, in a review of the Met show by-Mary Tompkins Lewis in the Wall Street Journal she wrote that the drawings “reveal David’s spectacular power of invention and rigorous creative process.”

Where’s the “spectacular power of invention” in David’s avowed “intention of imitation”?

Even the Met’s exhibit title “Jacques Louis David: Radical draftsman,” seems inappropriate. What’s radical about emulating art that came before?

David was so imbued with commemorating ancient history that he disregarded feelings for current events. While attending the execution of friends Danton and Camille Desmoulins during the massacre of prisoners at La Force in 1792, the artist was seen“composedly making sketches from the dying and the dead.”

Drawing the dying

According to historians Goldwater and Treves, when David was asked what he was doing at the execution, he coolly replied, “I am catching the last convulsions of nature in these scoundrels!”

His feelings were reserved for ancient Roman history.

His painting The Oath of the Horatii illustrates this and the Neo-Classical idea in several ways: It pictures an event from Old Rome’s history.

That’s when Rome and Alba sent three men each to duel for supremacy. David shows the three Romans, sons of Horatio, vowing to their father on their swords to defend their city.

Icons of patriotism and bravery, the Romans stand erect and determined.

Slumped to the side in anticipated grief are their women. By marking the contrast between these figures, David appears to share his view that emotionalism is weak.

Like I say, you don’t want to hang out with this guy.