Jacques-Louis David ( 30 August 1748 – 29 December 1825) was an influential French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and severity, heightened feeling chiming with the moral climate of the final years of the Ancien Régime.
Movements: Neoclassicism, Realism
David later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon I. It was at this time that he developed his Empire style, notable for its use of warm Venetian colours. David had a huge number of pupils, making him the strongest influence in French art of the early 19th century, especially academic Salon painting.
Jacques-Louis David was born into a prosperous family in Paris on 30 August 1748. When he was about nine his father was killed in a duel and his mother left him with his prosperous architect uncles. They saw to it that he received an excellent education at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, but he was never a good student: he had a facial tumor that impeded his speech, and he was always preoccupied with drawing. He covered his notebooks with drawings, and he once said, “I was always hiding behind the instructor’s chair, drawing for the duration of the class”. Soon, he desired to be a painter, but his uncles and mother wanted him to be an architect.
He overcame the opposition, and went to learn from François Boucher (1703–1770), the leading painter of the time, who was also a distant relative. Boucher was a Rococo painter, but tastes were changing, and the fashion for Rococo was giving way to a more classical style. Boucher decided that instead of taking over David’s tutelage, he would send David to his friend Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809), a painter who embraced the classical reaction to Rococo. There David attended the Royal Academy, based in what is now the Louvre.
David attempted to win the Prix de Rome, an art scholarship to the French Academy in Rome, five times. At each failure he became increasingly frustrated with the Academy for denying him the prize, and this dissatisfaction sowed the seeds of a long-standing grudge against the institution. Once, he lost according to legend because he had not consulted Vien, one of the judges. Another time, he lost because a few other students had been competing for years, and Vien felt David’s education could wait for these other mediocre painters.
In protest, he attempted to starve himself to death. Finally, in 1774, David won the Prix de Rome. Normally, he would have had to attend another school before attending the Academy in Rome, but Vien’s influence kept him out of it. He went to Italy with Vien in 1775, as Vien had been appointed director of the French Academy at Rome. While in Italy, David observed the Italian masterpieces and the ruins of ancient Rome. David filled twelve sketchbooks with material that he would derive from for the rest of his life. He met the influential early neoclassical painter Raphael Mengs (1728–1779), and through Mengs was introduced to the pathbreaking theories of art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768). While in Rome, he studied great masters, and came to favor above all others Raphael. In 1779, David was able to see the ruins of Pompeii, and was filled with wonder. After this, he sought to revolutionize the art world with the “eternal” concepts of classicism.
David’s fellow students at the academy found him difficult to get along with, but they recognized his genius. David was allowed to stay at the French Academy in Rome for an extra year, but after 5 years in Rome, he returned to Paris. There, he found people ready to use their influence for him, and he was made a member of the Royal Academy. He sent the Academy two paintings, and both were included in the Salon of 1781, a high honor. He was praised by his famous contemporary painters, but the administration of the Royal Academy was very hostile to this young upstart.
After the Salon, the King granted David lodging in the Louvre, an ancient and much desired privilege of great artists. When the contractor of the King’s buildings, M. Pécoul, was arranging with David, he asked the artist to marry his daughter, Marguerite Charlotte. This marriage brought him money and eventually four children. David had his own pupils, about 40 to 50, and was commissioned by the government to paint “Horace defended by his Father”, but he soon decided, “Only in Rome can I paint Romans.” His father-in-law provided the money he needed for the trip, and David headed for Rome with his wife and three of his students, one of whom, Jean-Germain Drouais (1763–1788), was the Prix de Rome winner of that year.
In Rome, David painted his famous Oath of the Horatii, 1784. In this piece, the artist references Enlightenment values while alluding to Rousseau’s social contract. The republican ideal of the general will becomes the focus of the painting with all three sons positioned in compliance with the father. The Oath between the characters can be read as an act of unification of men to the binding of the state.
The issue of gender roles also becomes apparent in this piece, as the women in Horatii greatly contrast the group of brothers. David depicts the father with his back to the women, shutting them out of the oath making ritual; they also appear to be smaller in scale than the male figures.
The masculine virility and discipline displayed by the men’s rigid and confident stances is also severely contrasted to the slouching, swooning female softness created in the other half of the composition. Here we see the clear division of male-female attributes which confined the sexes to specific roles, under Rousseau’s popular doctrines.
These revolutionary ideals are also apparent in the Distribution of Eagles. While Oath of the Horatii and Oath of the Tennis Court stress the importance of masculine self-sacrifice for one’s country and patriotism, the Distribution of Eagles would ask for self-sacrifice for one’s Emperor (Napoleon) and the importance of battlefield glory.
In 1787, David did not become the Director of the French Academy in Rome, which was a position he wanted dearly. The Count in charge of the appointments said David was too young, but said he would support him in 6 to 12 years. This situation would be one of many that would cause him to lash out at the Academy in years to come.
For the salon of 1787, David exhibited his famous Death of Socrates. “Condemned to death, Socrates, strong, calm and at peace, discusses the immortality of the soul. Surrounded by Crito, his grieving friends and students, he is teaching, philosophizing, and in fact, thanking the God of Health, Asclepius, for the hemlock brew which will ensure a peaceful death… The wife of Socrates can be seen grieving alone outside the chamber, dismissed for her weakness. Plato is depicted as an old man seated at the end of the bed.” Critics compared the Socrates with Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Raphael’s Stanze, and one, after ten visits to the Salon, described it as “in every sense perfect”. Denis Diderot said it looked like he copied it from some ancient bas-relief. The painting was very much in tune with the political climate at the time. For this painting, David was not honored by a royal “works of encouragement”.
For his next painting, David created The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons. The work had tremendous appeal for the time. Before the opening of the Salon, the French Revolution had begun. The National Assembly had been established, and the Bastille had fallen. The royal court did not want propaganda agitating the people, so all paintings had to be checked before being hung. David’s portrait of Lavoisier, who was a chemist and physicist as well as an active member of the Jacobin party, was banned by the authorities for such reasons.
When the newspapers reported that the government had not allowed the showing of The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, the people were outraged, and the royals were forced to give in. The painting was hung in the exhibition, protected by art students. The painting depicts Lucius Junius Brutus, the Roman leader, grieving for his sons. Brutus’s sons had attempted to overthrow the government and restore the monarchy, so the father ordered their death to maintain the republic. Thus, Brutus was the heroic defender of the republic, at the cost of his own family. On the right, the Mother holds her two daughters, and the nurse is seen on the far right, in anguish. Brutus sits on the left, alone, brooding, seemingly dismissing the dead bodies of his sons. Knowing what he did was best for his country, but the tense posture of his feet and toes reveals his inner turmoil. The whole painting was a Republican symbol, and obviously had immense meaning during these times in France.
In the beginning, David was a supporter of the Revolution, a friend of Robespierre and a member of the Jacobin Club. While others were leaving the country for new and greater opportunities, David stayed to help destroy the old order; he was a regicide who voted in the National Convention for the Execution of Louis XVI. It is uncertain why he did this, as there were many more opportunities for him under the King than the new order; some people suggest David’s love for the classical made him embrace everything about that period, including a republican government.
Others believed that they found the key to the artist’s revolutionary career in his personality. Undoubtedly, David’s artistic sensibility, mercurial temperament, volatile emotions, ardent enthusiasm, and fierce independence might have been expected to help turn him against the established order but they did not fully explain his devotion to the republican regime. Nor did the vague statements of those who insisted upon his “powerful ambition… and unusual energy of will” actually account for his revolutionary connections. Those who knew him maintained that “generous ardor”, high-minded idealism and well-meaning, though sometimes fanatical, enthusiasm rather than selfishness and jealousy, motivated his activities during this period.
Soon, David turned his critical sights on Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. This attack was probably caused primarily by the hypocrisy of the organization and their personal opposition against his work, as seen in previous episodes in David’s life. The Royal Academy was chock full of royalists, and David’s attempt to reform it did not go over well with the members. However, the deck was stacked against this symbol of the old regime, and the National Assembly ordered it to make changes to conform to the new constitution.
David then began work on something that would later hound him: propaganda for the new republic. David’s painting of Brutus was shown during the play Brutus, by the famous Frenchman, Voltaire. The people responded in an uproar of approval.
In 1789, Jacques-Louis David attempted to leave his artistic mark on the historical beginnings of the French Revolution with his painting of The Oath of the Tennis Court. David undertook this task not out of personal political conviction but rather because he was commissioned to do so. The painting was meant to commemorate the event of the same name but was never completed. A meeting of the Estates General was convened in May to address reforms of the monarchy. Dissent arose over whether the numerous members of the Third Estate would be counted by head or – following tradition – as one body.
On June 17 the members of the Third Estate renamed themselves the National Assembly. The new assembly decided that each individual would be counted by head and the members alone would levy taxes. Shortly thereafter, on June 20, the National Assembly attempted to meet but the chamber doors were locked and guarded by soldiers of the monarchy. Members of the new National Assembly convened at a nearby tennis court and vowed they would not be disbanded until they had created a constitution. In 1789 this event was seen as a symbol of the national unity against the ancien regime. David was enlisted by the Society of Friends of the Constitution, the body that would eventually form the Jacobins, to enshrine this symbolic event.
This instance is notable in more ways than one because it eventually led David to finally become involved in politics as he joined the Jacobins. The picture was meant to be massive in scale; the figures in the foreground were meant to be life-sized portraits of the counterparts, including Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the President of the Constituent Assembly. Seeking additional funding, David turned to the Society of Friends of the Constitution. The funding for the project was to come from over three thousand subscribers hoping to receive a print of the image. However, when the funding was insufficient, the state ended up financing the project.
David set out in 1790, to transform the contemporary event into a major historical picture, which would appear at the Salon of 1791 as a large pen and ink drawing. As in the Oath of the Horatii, David represents the unity of men in the service of a patriotic ideal. In what was essentially an act of intellect and reason, David creates an air of drama in this work. The very power of the people appears to be “blowing” through the scene with the stormy weather, in a sense alluding to the storm that would be the revolution.
Symbolism in this work of art closely represents the revolutionary events taking place at the time. The figure in the middle is raising his right arm making the oath that they will never disband until they have reached their goal of creating a “constitution of the realm fixed upon solid foundations.”
The importance of this symbol is highlighted by the fact that the crowd’s arms are angled to his hand forming a triangular shape. Additionally, the open space in the top half contrasted to the commotion in the lower half serves to emphasize the magnitude of the Tennis Court Oath.
On 13 July 1793, David’s friend Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday with a knife she had hidden in her clothing. She gained entrance to Marat’s house on the pretense of presenting him a list of people who should be executed as enemies of France. Marat thanked her and said that they would be guillotined next week upon which Corday immediately fatally stabbed him. She was guillotined shortly thereafter. Corday was of an opposing political party, whose name can be seen in the note Marat holds in David’s subsequent painting, The Death of Marat.
Marat, a member of the National Assembly and a journalist, had a skin disease that caused him to itch horribly. The only relief he could get was in his bath over which he improvised a desk to write his list of suspect counter-revolutionaries who were to be quickly tried and, if convicted, guillotined. David once again organized a spectacular funeral, and Marat was buried in the Panthéon. Because Marat died in the bathtub, writing, David wanted to have his body submerged in the bathtub during the funeral procession. This did not play out because the body had begun to putrefy. Instead, Marat’s body was periodically sprinkled with water as the people came to see his corpse, complete with gaping wound. The Death of Marat, perhaps David’s most famous painting, has been called the Pietà of the revolution. Upon presenting the painting to the convention, he said “Citizens, the people were again calling for their friend; their desolate voice was heard: David, take up your brushes.., avenge Marat… I heard the voice of the people. I obeyed.” David had to work quickly, but the result was a simple and powerful image.
The Death of Marat, 1793, became the leading image of the Terror and immortalized both Marat, and David in the world of the revolution. This piece stands today as “a moving testimony to what can be achieved when an artist’s political convictions are directly manifested in his work”.
A political martyr was instantly created as David portrayed Marat with all the marks of the real murder, in a fashion which greatly resembles that of Christ or his disciples.The subject although realistically depicted remains lifeless in a rather supernatural composition. With the surrogate tombstone placed in front of him and the almost holy light cast upon the whole scene; alluding to an out of this world existence. “Atheists though they were, David and Marat, like so many other fervent social reformers of the modern world, seem to have created a new kind of religion.”At the very center of these beliefs, there stood the republic.
After executing the King, war broke out between the new Republic and virtually every major power in Europe. David, as a member of the Committee of General Security, contributed directly to the reign of Terror.
The committee was severe. Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine; an event recorded in a famous sketch by David. Portable guillotines killed failed generals, aristocrats, priests and perceived enemies. David organized his last festival: the festival of the Supreme Being. Robespierre had realized what a tremendous propaganda tool these festivals were, and he decided to create a new religion, mixing moral ideas with the republic, based on the ideas of Rousseau, with Robespierre as the new high priest. This process had already begun by confiscating church lands and requiring priests to take an oath to the state. The festivals, called fêtes, would be the method of indoctrination. On the appointed day, 20 Prairial by the revolutionary calendar, Robespierre spoke, descended steps, and with a torch presented to him by David, incinerated a cardboard image symbolizing atheism, revealing an image of wisdom underneath. The festival hastened the “Incorruptible’s” downfall.
Soon, the war began to go well; French troops marched across the southern half of the Netherlands (which would later become Belgium), and the emergency that had placed the Committee of Public Safety in control was no more. Then plotters seized Robespierre at the National Convention and he was later guillotined, in effect ending the reign of terror. As Robespierre was arrested, David yelled to his friend “if you drink hemlock, I shall drink it with you.”
After this, he supposedly fell ill, and did not attend the evening session because of “stomach pain”, which saved him from being guillotined along with Robespierre. David was arrested and placed in prison. There he painted his own portrait, showing him much younger than he actually was, as well as that of his jailer.
After David’s wife visited him in jail, he conceived the idea of telling the story of the Sabine Women. The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running between the Combatants, also called The Intervention of the Sabine Women is said to have been painted to honor his wife, with the theme being love prevailing over conflict. The painting was also seen as a plea for the people to reunite after the bloodshed of the revolution.
David conceived a new style for this painting, one which he called the “Grecian style,” as opposed to the “Roman style” of his earlier historical paintings. The new style was influenced heavily by the work of art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann. In David’s words:
the most prominent general characteristics of the Greek masterpieces are a noble simplicity and silent greatness in pose as well as in expression.
On the Bourbons returning to power, David figured in the list of proscribed former revolutionaries and Bonapartists — for having voted execution for the deposed King Louis XVI; and for participating in the death of Louis XVII. Mistreated and starved, the imprisoned Louis XVII was forced to confess to incest with his mother, Queen Marie-Antoinette, (untrue; separated early, son and mother were disallowed communication, nevertheless, the allegation helped earn her the guillotine).
The new Bourbon King, Louis XVIII, however, granted amnesty to David and even offered him the position of court painter. David refused, preferring self-exile in Brussels. There, he trained and influenced Brussels artists like François-Joseph Navez and Ignace Brice, painted Cupid and Psyche and quietly lived the remainder of his life with his wife (whom he had remarried). In that time, he painted smaller-scale mythological scenes, and portraits of citizens of Brussels and Napoleonic émigrés, such as the Baron Gerard.
David created his last great work, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces, from 1822 to 1824. In December 1823, he wrote:
This is the last picture I want to paint, but I want to surpass myself in it. I will put the date of my seventy-five years on it and afterwards I will never again pick up my brush.
The finished painting — evoking painted porcelain because of its limpid coloration — was exhibited first in Brussels, then in Paris, where his former students flocked to view it. The exhibition was profitable — 13,000 francs, after deducting operating costs, thus, more than 10,000 people visited and viewed the painting. In his later years, David remained in full command of his artistic faculties, even after a stroke in the spring of 1825 disfigured his face and slurred his speech.
In June 1825, he resolved to embark on an improved version of his Anger of Achilles (also known as the Sacrifice of Iphigenie; the earlier version was completed in 1819 and is now in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. David remarked to his friends who visited his studio “this [painting] is what is killing me” such was his determination to complete the work, but by October it must have already been well advanced as his former pupil Gros wrote to congratulate him, having heard reports of the painting’s merits. By the time David died, the painting had been completed and the commissioner Ambroise Firmin-Didot brought it back to Paris to include it in the exhibition “Pour les grecs” that he had organised and which opened in Paris in April 1826.
When David was leaving a theater, a carriage struck him, and he later died, on 29 December 1825. At his death, some portraits were auctioned in Paris, they sold for little; the famous Death of Marat was exhibited in a secluded room, to avoid outraging public sensibilities. Disallowed return to France for burial, for having been a regicide of King Louis XVI, the body of the painter Jacques-Louis David was buried at Brussels Cemetery, while his heart was buried at Père Lachaise, Paris.
Jacques-Louis David was, in his time, regarded as the leading painter in France, and arguably all of Western Europe; many of the painters honored by the restored Bourbons following the French Revolution had been David’s pupils.
David’s student Antoine-Jean Gros for example, was made a Baron and honored by Napoleon Bonaparte’s court. Another pupil of David’s, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres became the most important artist of the restored Royal Academy and the figurehead of the Neoclassical school of art, engaging the increasingly popular Romantic school of art that was beginning to challenge Neoclassicism.
To be one of David’s students was considered prestigious and earned his students a lifetime of reputation.
Despite David’s reputation, he was more fiercely criticized right after his death than at any point during his life. His style came under the most serious criticism for being static, rigid, and uniform throughout all his work. David’s art was also attacked for being cold and lacking warmth.
David, however, made his career precisely by challenging what he saw as the earlier rigidity and conformity of the French Royal Academy’s approach to art. David’s later works also reflect his growth in the development of the Empire style, notable for its dynamism and warm colors. It is likely that much of the criticism of David following his death came from David’s opponents; during his lifetime David made a great many enemies with his competitive and arrogant personality as well as his role in the Terror.
David sent many people to the guillotine and personally signed the death warrants for King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. One significant episode in David’s political career that earned him a great deal of contempt was the execution of Emilie Chalgrin. A fellow painter Carle Vernet had approached David, who was on the Committee of Public Safety, requesting him to intervene on behalf of his sister, Chalgrin. She had been accused of crimes against the Republic, most notably possessing stolen items. David refused to intervene in her favor, and she was executed. Vernet blamed David for her death, and the episode followed him for the rest of his life and after.
In the last 50 years David has enjoyed a revival in popular favor and in 1948 his two-hundredth birthday was celebrated with an exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and at Versailles showing his life’s works. Following World War II, Jacques-Louis David was increasingly regarded as a symbol of French national pride and identity, as well as a vital force in the development of European and French art in the modern era.
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