Jacques Louis David

The French painter Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) was the leader of the neoclassic movement. His style set the artistic standards for many of his contemporaries and determined the direction of numerous 19th-century painters.

Jacques Louis David early turned his back on the frivolous rococo manner, looking instead to antiquity for inspiration. Following the ideals of Nicolas Poussin, to whom the artist candidly admitted he owed everything, David sought to reduce classical principles to their barest, unencumbered essentials. In this endeavor he observed with avid interest the neoclassicism propounded by Johann Winckelmann and the illustrations of antiquity found in the paintings of Anton Raphael Mengs. An outspoken political firebrand, David espoused the cause of the French Revolution and under the Convention held sway as the virtual dictator of the arts; later when Napoleon came to power, he acted willingly as his artistic spokesman.

David was born in Paris on Aug. 30, 1748. His well-to-do bourgeois family placed him in the studio of that arch-practitioner of the rococo manner, the eminent painter François Boucher, to whom David was apparently distantly related. Perhaps because of his own advanced years, Boucher encouraged David to study under Joseph Marie Vien, a painter who had been attracted by the new wave of interest in antiquity while studying in Rome. In 1771 David won second prize in the Prix de Rome competition, but it was not until 3 years later and after severe mental frustration that he won the first prize with his painting Antiochus Dying for the Love of Stratonice.

Early Works

David went to Rome in 1775 in the company of Vien, who had just been named the director of the French Academy there. David studied the ancient architectural monuments, marble reliefs, and freestanding statues. In addition, he strove for a clearer understanding of the classical principles underlying the styles of the Renaissance and baroque masters Raphael, the Carracci, Domenichino, and Guido Reni. The effects of David's Romanization were first witnessed in his Belisarius Asking for Alms, exhibited in Paris in 1781. When he returned to Paris in 1780, he was an artist already thoroughly imbued with the tenets of classicism. He was admitted to the French Academy in 1783 with his painting Andromache by the Body of Hector.

The following year David returned to Rome in order to paint the Oath of the Horatii, a work which was immediately acclaimed a masterpiece both in Italy and in France at its showing at the Parisian Salon of 1785. The painting reflected a strong interest in archeological exactitude in the depiction of figures and settings. Its carefully calculated severity of composition and its emphasis on a sculptural hardness of precise drawing, which David saw as more important than color, contributed to the forceful moralistic tone of the subject: the oath being administered to the Horatii by their father, who demanded their sacrifice for the good of the state. In this single work, with its strong republican implications, those aspiring to do so could find a call to revolution, a revolution which was in fact only 5 years distant. The Oath was followed by other moralizing canvases such as the Death of Socrates (1787) and Brutus and the Lictors Bringing Home to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789), both extolling the classical virtues.

French Revolution

With the Revolution in full swing, David for a time abandoned his classical approach and began to paint scenes describing contemporary events, among them the unfinished Oath of the Tennis Court (1791), glorifying the first challenge to royal authority by the parliamentarians of the period. He also concentrated on portraits of the martyred heroes of the fight for freedom, including the Death of Marat (1793), the Death of Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau (1793) and the Death of Joseph Bara (1794), all executed with an unvarnished realism. The artist was deeply involved with the political scene; elected to the National Convention in 1792, he served as a deputy to that all-powerful body and was one of those who voted for the execution of King Louis XVI.

David had apparently long harbored great animosity toward the French Academy, perhaps because it had failed to fully recognize his talents when he had first submitted works for the Grand Prix competition. Though an honored member by the time of the Revolution, in 1793 he hastened its dissolution, forming a group called the Commune of the Arts; this group was almost immediately supplanted by the Popular and Republican Society of the Arts, from whose ranks the Institute ultimately would be formed.

A friend of Robespierre, David nearly accompanied him to the guillotine when the Jacobin fell from power in 1794. Imprisoned for 7 months, first at Fresnes and then in the Luxembourg, the artist emerged a politically wiser man. It was while in prison that David executed one of his rare landscapes: the Gardens of the Luxembourg (1794), a view from his prison window. By 1798 he was busy on what he proclaimed his masterpiece, the Rape of the Sabine Women. The subject matter, derived from the classical legend described by Livy in which the Sabine women intervened in the battle between their fathers and brothers and their Roman husbands, represented a calculated appeal by David to end the internecine conflict that had ripped France asunder; further, the vast canvas was planned as a sort of manifesto proclaiming the validity of the antique.

David and Napoleon

It was at this time that David met Napoleon Bonaparte, in whose person he recognized a worthy new hero whom he promptly proceeded to glorify. The Emperor in turn realized the rich potential of David as a propagandist born to champion his imperial regime, and it was probably with this in mind that he invited the artist to accompany him on his Egyptian campaign; that David declined to go was surely due only to the fact that he was then deeply absorbed in the creation of his avowed masterpiece, the Sabine Women. Named "first painter," David executed a number of portraits of the Emperor, the most notable of which is probably that entitled Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (1800), in which the subject was idealized in physical stature and romanticized as the effortless man of action. Among the major commissions granted David by the Emperor were the colossal scenes treating specific episodes of his reign. The best-known of these are the Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1805-1807), containing over 100 portraits, and the Distribution of the Eagles (1810).

Though David would have preferred to be remembered for his history painting, he was at his best as a portraitist. Certain of his portraits, such as Madame Sériziat and Her Daughter and Monsieur Sériziat (1795), are done with an incredible directness and thus retain a freshness and vivacity not often encountered in David's more serious works. His unfinished portrait Madame Récamier (1800), with the subject shown in long, loosely flowing robes, vaguely reminiscent of the antique, summarizes the studied elegance of the neoclassic age.

With Bonaparte's defeat at Waterloo and the subsequent restoration of the Bourbons, David tried to retreat into quiet seclusion, but his earlier political affiliation and, more particularly, his actions during the heat of the Revolution were not calculated to warm his relations with the new rulers. He was declared persona non grata and fled to Switzerland. A short time later he settled in Brussels, where he continued to paint until his death on Dec. 29, 1825. His family's urgent request that his ashes be returned to France was denied. He was buried amidst great pomp and circumstance in the church of Ste-Gudule in Brussels.

David's Influence

There was scarcely a young painter of the following generation who was not influenced by David's style, a style which had within it such diverse aspects as classicism, realism, and romanticism. Among his foremost pupils, each of whom developed various different facets of his style, were Antoine Jean, Baron Gros; Pierre Narcisse Guérin; François Gérard; Girodet de Roucy-Trioson; and perhaps most important, J. A. D. Ingres.

Further Reading on Jacques Louis David

Most of the vast literature on David is in French. In English, the best studies are W. R. Valentiner, Jacques Louis David and the French Revolution (1929), and David L. Dowd, Pageant Master of the Republic: Jacques-Louis David and the French Revolution (1948). David is also discussed in the following general studies of the period: Lionello Venturi, Modern Painters (2 vols., 1947-1950); Walter Friedlaender, David to Delacroix (1952); and Jack Lindsay, Death of the Hero: French Painting from David to Delacroix (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Brookner, Anita, Jacques-Louis David, London: Chatto &Windus, 1980; New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1980, 1987.