To the end of his life David was an absolute partisan of the French Revolution and a supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, no painter so heroically commemorated the events of 1789 or so indelibly memorialized the Emperor as did David, in masterpieces from the Oath of the Tennis Court (begun in 1790; Château, Versailles) and The Death of Marat (1793; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), to Bonaparte Crossing the Great St. Bernard (1801; several versions including Château de Malmaison, Paris) and The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (known as the 'Tableau du Sacre, 1805-07; Louvre, Paris). Having remained loyal to Bonaparte, David was forced into exile after Napoleon's final disgrace and the Bourbons' return to power in 1815. In January 1816, following the passage of a law against regicides, David left for Brussels where he would remain for the rest of his life.
Unsuccessful in securing a permanent post from the governor of Brussels to oversee all artistic matters in the Netherlands, David seems to have taken on what for him was an unusually large number of portrait commissions - six in 1816 alone - to cover the costs of his relocation and help finance his settling into his new home. From the first, he moved in social circles composed principally of revolutionary exiles like himself and members of the deposed Emperor's extended family, and he drew from this disillusioned and dislocated set the subjects of his portrait commissions. Among these were the two daughters of Joseph Bonaparte (1821; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) and his niece (1824; Louvre, Paris); a handsome young chamberlain to Napoleon and Josephine, the prince de Gavre (1816; private collection); a one time lady-in-waiting to Empress Marie-Louise, the Comtesse Vilain XIIII (posed with her daughter; 1816; National Gallery, London); distinguished former members of the Imperial military corps, General Gerard (1816; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the Comte de Turenne (painted twice in 1816: a bust-length in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown and a three-quarter length in the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen); and radical legislators from the heady, early years of the Revolution, including Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes (1817; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard), Charles-Jean-Marie Alquier (lost in a fire in 1871), and Ramel de Nogaret, sitter for the present portrait (1820).
Dominique-Vincent Ramel de Nogaret (1760-1829) had been a royal attorney from Carcassonne when he was elected deputy to the Estates-Generales in 1789. He swore the legendary Oath of the Tennis Court, and almost certainly posed for David when the artist began his great canvas commemorating the event (Ramel stands between Malouet and Garat in the composition). Like David, he was elected to the National Convention in 1792 and voted for the death of Louis XVI. He was a member of the notorious Committee of Public Safety, where he distinguished himself by opposing arbitrary arrests. He was a member of the Five Hundred and served in the all-important role of Minister of Finance from 1796 to 1799, the volatile years of the Directory, during which he proved to be an effective reformer of the tax codes and rationalized and reconstructed France's fiscal system. He withdrew from public affairs almost entirely during the Consulate and Empire, but chose - perhaps unwisely - to return to the national stage as a Prefect in Normandy during the Hundred Days, the brief period of Napoleon's return to power following his exile to Elba and before his final defeat at the hands of Wellington. Like David, Ramel was exiled in January 1816 and chose to relocate, with his wife, to Belgium.
Of all of the French exiles in Brussels, David had the closest personal relationship with Ramel. The two had long served together in various capacities in the revolutionary governments of the 1790s. During his time as Finance Minister, Ramel is recorded as having given David permission to retrieve the reduced replica of the Belisarius (Louvre, Paris) that was hanging in the offices of the Ministry so that he might have it engraved, and later, in 1799, Ramel was asked by a colleague to secure an official spot where David could exhibit the Sabines (1799; Louvre, Paris). However, it was during their exile that the relationship between the two deepened. David attended the receptions organized by Mme. Ramel for the community of French expatriats in Brussels, and Ramel offered the painter assistance with his financial affairs. The former minister urged David to follow the example of many of their fellow refugees and write his memoirs, invoking the precedent of Cellini. It was Ramel who delivered the funeral oration for the painter after his death in 1825 and, most poignantly, it was Ramel who bought him a cemetery plot when the French government refused to bring David's body back to France.
The magnificent pair of portraits of Ramel and his wife, who had married in the Year VIII (1799-1800), was executed in 1820 and was no doubt commissioned by the sitters. In his portrait, Ramel sits upright in a chair with his arm informally wrapped around the chair-back, but he exhibits a self-confidence and slightly world-weary dignity appropriate to a mature man of high distinction who had once been a force to reckon with at the center of history-making events. The late scholar of David's work, Antoine Schnapper, commended the portrait for the 'brilliant modeling of the face, in which blood flows mysteriously as in a Valentin painting'. Mme. Ramel - who had been born into an illustrious publishing family (she was the grand-niece of Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, editor of the Encyclopedie and founder of Le Moniteur) - appears in her portrait without idealization, a stern, determined woman with few illusions and little trace of her former Parisian cosmopolitanism. Anita Brookner has written of such Brussels portraits that they 'have a resolutely provincial character. Dowdy, fussy and uncompromising, they are an unmistakable feature of Restoration painting considered in its widest aspect'. Such portraits, she continues, 'have the closed prudence of a small bourgeois society with its own ideas of significant appearance'. Remembering the former power and position of the Ramels, and the other members of this revolutionary diaspora, Louis Hautecoeur recorded that David had received these people in the garden of his home in Brussels and noted with irony that 'these men who had once terrified Europe were now just old men surrounded by children's games'.
As Philippe Bordes has observed, Ramel earned a living in Belgium in the manufacturing and trading of textiles, his family's traditional occupation in the Languedoc region. Curiously, although Ramel wears a handsome, deep blue coat, his costume is very simple, and does not seem to purposely evoke his association with the luxury fabric trade. Mme. Ramel's powerful and honest face is, however, surrounded by a striking lace and silk bonnet - 'a decorative surcharge of contemporary millinery', in Bordes' words - and collar and a heavy silk bodice shimmering with blue-grey highlights. In both paintings, David has renounced the fine finish and stylishness of his Paris work and has sought a new model in the kind of painting he found in and around Belgium and the north - recreating (especially in the portrait of Mme. Ramel) the simple, startling immediacy encountered in the works of Jan Gossaert (1478-1533), called Mabuse (see A. Wintermute, 1989, p. 132). David has rendered the couple with a rigorous astringency of technique that assumes something of a moral dimension. It was this prodigious realism, admired by David's followers in Belgium and shared by the younger Gericault, that moves away from the academic perfection and idealism of David's earlier work and reaches far into the nineteenth century, to Courbet and beyond.
It is not known when Mme. Ramel died, but the former Minister himself succumbed to gangrene in 1829, leaving two daughters, Melanie and Pauline. These small and intensely direct portraits were together at least until 1940, having descended through members of the family, and were reunited in 1995. After Ramel's death, a lithograph of David's portrait of him was circulated above the quatrain:
'Virtous citizen, incorruptible minister,
He loved nation and liberty,
Just though indulgent, reserved though sensitive,
He lived without stain... He died in exile'