David was the virtual art dictator of France for a generation. Extending beyond painting, his influence determined the course of fashion, furniture design, and interior decoration and was reflected in the development of moral philosophy. His art was a sudden and decisive break with tradition, and from this break “modern art” is dated.
David studied with Vien, and after winning the Prix de Rome (which had been refused him four times, causing him to attempt suicide by starvation) he accompanied Vien to Italy in 1775. His pursuit of the antique, nurtured by his time in Rome, directed the classical revival in French art. He borrowed classical forms and motifs, predominantly from sculpture, to illustrate a sense of virtue he mistakenly attributed to the ancient Romans. Consumed by a desire for perfection and by a passion for the political ideals of the French Revolution, David imposed a fierce discipline on the expression of sentiment in his work. This inhibition resulted in a distinct coldness and rationalism of approach.
David’s reputation was made by the Salon of 1784. In that year he produced his first masterwork, The Oath of the Horatii (Louvre). This work and his celebrated Death of Socrates (1787; Metropolitan Mus.) as well as Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789; Louvre) were themes appropriate to the political climate of the time. They secured for David vast popularity and success. David was admitted to the Acadmie royale in 1780 and worked as court painter to the king.
As a powerful republican David, upon being elected to the revolutionary Convention, voted for the king’s death and for the dissolution of the Acadmie royale both in France and in Rome. In his paintings of the Revolution’s martyrs, especially in his Marat (1793; Brussels), his iron control is softened and the tragic portraits are moving and dignified. The artist was imprisoned for a time at the end of the Reign of Terror.
David emerged to become First Painter to the emperor and foremost recorder of Napoleonic events (e.g., Napoleon Crossing the Saint Bernard Pass, 1800; Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, 1805–07; and The Distribution of the Eagles, 1810) and a sensitive portraitist (Mme Rcamier, 1800; Louvre). In this period David reached the height of his influence, but his painting, more than ever the embodiment of neoclassical theory, was again static and deadened in feeling. The Battle of the Romans and Sabines (1799; Louvre) vivified the battle by the use of physically frozen figures.
During the Restoration David spent his last years in Brussels. As a portraitist he was at his most distinguished, although he belittled this painting genre. Using living, rather than sculptured models, he allowed his spontaneous sentiment to be revealed. In these last years his portraits, such as Antoine Mongez and His Wife Angelica (1812; Lille) and Bernard (1820; Louvre) are enormously vital and in them the seeds of the new romanticism are clearly discernible.
Jacques-Louis David was born into a prosperous middle-class family in Paris on August 30, 1748. In 1757 his mother left him to be raised by his uncles after his father was killed.
He was never a good student in school- in his own words, “I was always hiding behind the instructors chair, drawing for the duration of the class”.
When David was 16 he began studying art at the Acadmie Royale under the rococo painter J. M. Vien. After many unsuccessful attempts, he finally won the Prix de Rome in 1774, and on the ensuing trip to Italy he was strongly influenced by classical art and by the classically inspired work of the 17th-century painter Nicolas Poussin. David quickly evolved his own individual neoclassical style, drawing subject matter from ancient sources and basing form and gesture on Roman sculpture. His famous “Oath of the Horatii” was consciously intended as a proclamation of the new neoclassical style in which dramatic lighting, ideal forms, and gestural clarity are emphasized. Presenting a lofty moralistic (and by implication patriotic) theme, the work became the principal model for noble and heroic historical painting of the next two decades. It also launched his popularity and awarded him the right to take on his own students.
After 1789, David adopted a realistic rather than neoclassical painting style in order to record scenes of the French Revolution (1789-1799). David was very active in the Revolution, being elected a deputy to the National Convention on September 17, 1792. He took his place with the extremists known as the Montagnards- along with Marat, Danton, and Robespierre.
During this time he had produced deeds both positive and negative: On the positive side he proposed the establishment of an inventory of all national treasures- making him one of the founders of France’s museums. In fact, he played an active role in the organization of the future Louvre, Paris.
On the negative side, his radicalism during the Revolution bred within him a certain madness. He was appointed to the Committee of General Security in 1793- which gave him the power to sign nearly 300 arrested individuals to be guillotined. After the end of the Revolution, imprisoned because of his actions during the Reign of Terror, he wrote a letter to a friend stating, “I believed, in accepting the post of legislator- an honorable post, but one very difficult to fulfill- that an upright heart would suffice, but I was lacking in the second quality, by which mean insight.” A delegation of his students demanded his release, and he was freed on December 28, 1794.
Near the end of 1797 he met Napoleon Bonaparte. From 1799 to 1815 he was Napoleon’s official painter, chronicling the reign of Napoleon I in huge works such as “The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine”. Following Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, David was exiled to Brussels, where he returned to mythological subjects drawn from the Greek and Roman past. He stayed there until his death on 29, 1825.
David, throughout his career, was also a prolific portraitist. Smaller in scale and more intimately human than his larger works, his portraits, such as the famous “Madame Rcamier”, show great technical mastery and understanding of character. Many modern critics consider them his best work, especially because they are free from the moralizing messages and sometimes stilted technique of his neoclassical works.
David’s career represents the transition from the rococo of the 18th century to the realism of the 19th. His cool studied neoclassicism strongly influenced his pupils Antoine Jean Gros and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and his patriotic and heroic themes paved the way for the romantics.
He had his first training with Boucher, a distant relative, but Boucher realized that their temperaments were opposed and sent David to Vien. David went to Italy with the latter in 1776, Vien having been appointed director of the French Academy at Rome, David having won the Prix de Rome.
In Italy, David was able to indulge his bent for the antique and came into contact with the initiators of the new Classical revival, including Gavin Hamilton. In 1780 he returned to Paris, and in the 1780s his position was firmly established as the embodiment of the social and moral reaction from the frivolity of the Rococo.
His uncompromising subordination of color to drawing and his economy of statement were in keeping with the new severity of taste. His themes gave expression to the new cult of the civic virtues of stoical self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, honesty, and austerity. Seldom have paintings so completely typified the sentiment of an age as David’s The Oath of the Horatii (Louvre, Paris, 1784), Brutus and his Dead Sons (Louvre, 1789), and The Death of Socrates (Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1787). They were received with acclamation by critics and public alike. Reynolds compared the Socrates with Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Raphael’s Stanze, and after ten visits to the Salon described it as ‘in every sense perfect’.
David was in active sympathy with the Revolution, becoming a Deputy and voting for the execution of Louis XVI. His position was unchallenged as the painter of the Revolution. His three paintings of ‘martyrs of the Revolution’, though conceived as portraits, raised portraiture into the domain of universal tragedy. They were: The Death of Lepeletier (now known only from an engraving), The Death of Marat (Muses Royaux, Brussels, 1793), and The Death of Bara (Muse Calvet, Avignon, unfinished). After the fall of Robespierre (1794), however, he was imprisoned, but was released on the plea of his wife, who had previously divorced him because of his Revolutionary sympathies (she was a royalist). They were remarried in 1796, and David’s Intervention of the Sabine Women (Louvre, 1794-99), begun while he was in prison, is said to have been painted to honor her, its theme being one of love prevailing over conflict. It was also interpreted at the time, however, as a plea for conciliation in the civil strife that France suffered after the Revolution and it was the work that re-established David’s fortunes and brought him to the attention of Napoleon, who appointed him his official painter.
David became an ardent supporter of Napoleon and retained under him the dominant social and artistic position which he had previously held. Between 1802 and 1807 he painted a series of pictures glorifying the exploits of the Emperor, among them the enormous Coronation of Napoleon (Louvre, 1805-07). These works show a change both in technique and in feeling from the earlier Republican works. The cold colors and severe compositions of the heroic paintings gave place to a new feeling for pageantry which had something in common with Romantic painting, although he always remained opposed to the Romantic school.
With the fall of Napoleon, David went into exile in Brussels, and his work weakened as the possibility of exerting a moral and social influence receded. (Until recently his late history paintings were generally scorned by critics, but their sensuous qualities are now winning them a more appreciative audience.) He continued to be an outstanding portraitist, but he never surpassed such earlier achievements as the great Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1800, one of four versions) or the cooly erotic Madame Rcamier (Louvre, 1800).
His work had a resounding influence on the development of French — and indeed European — painting, and his many pupils included Grard, Gros, and Ingres.
Jacques-Louis David: Stage Manager of the Revolution
The savagery of the French Revolution, which declared the Rights of Man but turned to bloody-handed tyranny and repressive terrorism, has long puzzled historians. Among the list of causes, and one rarely remembered, Elizabeth Wilson writes, was the painter Jacques-Louis David. Today, he is best known as one of the great masters of French painting–a defining master of an austere neoclassical style that dominated European art for almost a half-century–and one of the precursors of modern painting. But for a few terrifying years David was also “the propaganda minister of the French Revolution–a man who could turn an unruly mob, ready to kill for a loaf of bread, into tearful patriots willing to die for the cause.”
Wilson’s story traces David’s life and work, his great ambition and success. That success was mostly nonpolitical until 1785, when one of his monumental and posterish neoclassical paintings, The Oath of the Horatii, in which three brothers swear to fight to the death for their homeland, became linked to patriotic fervor as the Revolution was about to get under way. David went on not only to document the Tennis Court Oath, when the Revolution more or less officially began, but to produce on demand “state funerals and martyr portraits, multimedia pageants with a cast of thousands–all designed to keep the revolutionary faith alive, even when bodies were piling up ten deep beside “la guillotine.” His most startling picture, and one that links him most clearly to modern painting, is the martyr portrait of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, dead in his bath after being stabbed by Charlotte Corday.
The guillotine devoured many revolutionary leaders, and, indeed, David had declared he wanted to die with Robespierre, the principal architect of the Terror. But he survived, instead, and soon began fawning upon the young Napoleon. David was a turncoat and a sycophant, but a great painter. “He was born into a world in which painting was for the privileged few,” Wilson writes. “His images showed the power of art to electrify even the commonest citizen.”
D. L. Dowd, Pageant-Master of the Republic (1948); J. Lindsay, Death of theHero (1960); Warren Roberts, Jacques Louis David, Revolutionary Artist (1989).
Dorthy Johnson. Jacques-Louis David: The Art of Metamorphosis; Princeton University Press, November (1993)
Friedlander, W. F, From David to Delacroix, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, (1952)
Rosenblum R., Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art, Princeton University Press (1967)
L. Eitner, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, 1750-1850 Sources and Documents, Vol 1 Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1970