Like many former revolutionaries and adherents to Napoleon, David was forced into exile following the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815. Nearly seventy, he settled in Brussels, where he continued to paint and train numerous students. While he painted portraits, principally of expatriates like himself, he also returned to the classical themes that had interested him earlier in his career. David found solace in these familiar subjects, even if his new representations of them signal a fresh direction in his art. In these last paintings, colors assume a heightened richness and vibrancy—no doubt influenced by Flemish art—and his figures often exhibit a striking emotional poignancy. Although these works were invariably painted for private clients, David exhibited
them publicly. He thus remained an influential artist until his death.
For many ancient authors, Cupid represented the physical elements of love, while Psyche symbolized the mental and emotional side of human relationships. David shows Psyche sleeping contentedly, while Cupid, who looks like an awkward teenager, appears uncertain of how to behave. Not surprisingly, when the painting was first exhibited, many observers found this unconventional treatment unsettling, and it was not well received.
Designed as a thematic pendant to Cupid and Psyche, David's painting, with its idealized figures and its sumptuous color, illustrates a relatively obscure mythological romance. Telemachus must leave the nymph Eucharis in order to continue searching for his father, the Greek hero Odysseus. Eucharis lays her head on her lover's shoulder in an attempt to detain him; Telemachus places a hand on the nymph's leg as he gently tries to free himself from her embrace. Perhaps in response to criticism of Cupid and Psyche, David idealized the faces of both Telemachus and Eucharis.
David's theme is a free interpretation of an episode in Homer's Iliad. To placate the gods, the Greek general Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia; he lures her to his tent with the false promise of marriage to the warrior Achilles, who draws his sword in anger. The life-size cropped figures were highly unusual in the classical painting tradition. David was pleased by the result, saying that "never before have I done a picture that was better and more surely partakes of the simplicity and energy of ancient Greece."
According to David, this painting shows the Greek poet Sappho swooning in the embrace of her lover, the handsome youth Phaon, her fingers still unconsciously plucking the strings of a lyre held by Cupid. David presents the couple's passion with typical restraint. Remarkably for a mythological subject, the characters exhibit a near portrait-like specificity, turning their heads to engage the viewer directly. This painting was commissioned by a wealthy diplomat living in Paris.
Pliny the Elder describes how Alexander the Great commissioned Apelles, the greatest artist of the ancient world, to paint a picture of Campaspe, one of Alexander's concubines. During the sittings, the artist and model fell in love; the emperor in turn gave Campaspe to Apelles as a token of his esteem for the painter. Napoleon was often described as the modern incarnation of Alexander, and David as a new Apelles. David worked on the painting for many years, never completing it, which may reflect his ambivalent feelings for the emperor.