The Sword of Damocles


The Sword of Damocles



When this painting was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1804, Dubost won the praise of Jacques-Louis David and a gold medal from Napoleon.It depicts the 4th century BCE tyrant Damocles surrounded by dancing girls and objects of luxury as he espies a sword precariously suspended above him, thereby realizing that with perpetual menace there can be no happiness. The dramatic, academic nude is fully Davidian, while its languorous pose, coyly veiled genitals, and attenuated leg partake in a fashion of the time to evoke androgyny.

Dubost took the painting to London where, in 1807, The Times declared it “one of the richest pictures we ever beheld”. It caught the attention of Thomas Hope, the Dutch-born merchant banker, collector, designer, and promoter of the Greek Revival. (Lawrence’s portrait, is of his younger brother.) He bought it for 800 guineas but infuriated Dubost by overpainting some areas and cutting the canvas down at the top in order to make it fit a symmetrical hang in his London town house. He even effaced the artist’s signature when Dubost’s detractors claimed that it was too good to have been painted by Dubost and must be by David instead. Dubost retaliated with a satirical painting of Beauty and the Beast, giving the beast Hope’s likeness. Hope’s brother-in-law slashed it to pieces, Dubost sued for damages, and he published a booklet exposing Hope as “more of the Dutch trader than the liberal patron.

Despite its quality and having been the focus of so much attention, by the time of the Hope auction in 1917. The Sword of Damocles had lost its attribution and sold for only £57-15-0 as “French School”. Recent cleaning removed Hope’s alterations and recovered the signature, inscribed in Greek in ancient form, “Dubost made it.”

Sir Ratan Tata Art Collection.


European Paintings


Antoine Dubost (1769–1825)

Object Type



Oil on Canvas










228 x 258 cm