David, Jacques-Louis

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David, Jacques-Louis (1748-1825): French Painter.

Jacques-Louis David was an artistic and political revolutionary who founded the Neo-Classical style. He played a central role in the events of his time as the artistic spokesman of the French Revolution and the Republic, and he was the official artist for Bonaparte, Napoleon. His artistic innovations contributed to many nineteenth-century styles through the evolution of Neo-Classicism and the introduction of Romanticism and Realism.

David was born into an affluent and well educated family of craftsmen. After choosing a career in art, he went for instruction to his grandmother's cousin, the Rococo artist, Boucher, François. However, the latter was disinclined to take new pupils, and David entered the studio of the Neo-Classical history painter, Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809). In 1766, at a time aesthetic tastes were changing, David enrolled in the official school at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The government sponsored institution for the instruction of artists and the perpetuation of officially sanctioned styles was turning away from the Rococo, due in part to its association with a corrupt aristocracy. Revolutionary ideas, encouraged by the writings of Diderot, Denis, created a new wave of public opinion, which promoted virtue and moral behavior as a social responsibility.

The art world sought a new style to support a new social order and as early as 1740, the art of ancient Greece and Rome provided inspiration. Direct experience with ancient art was made possible by excavations begun in 1748 on the sites of the two Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, covered by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. The unearthed sculptures, paintings and objects of everyday use fed the growing enthusiasm for the art, political systems, literature and philosophy of antiquity. The German critic and archaeologist, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), wrote well-known works on aesthetics inspired by his studies of antique Greek art in which he recommended the emulation of ancient art to achieve formal purity and social responsibility through a didactic message.

By 1774, David's many attempts to win recognition from the Royal Academy had been fulfilled by the Prix de Rome award. In 1785, he completed the first fully realized Neo-Classical work, the Oath of the Horatii. Drawing on the well-known story, a war between Rome and Alba in 669 B.C.E., recorded by the historian, Livy and performed in the eighteenth century as a play by Corneille, the painting portrays members of the Roman Horatii family. It was agreed that the conflict be settled by a combat between three brothers from each camp. Starkly simple in a setting with archaeologically accurate props, three Horatii brothers reach their arms toward their father, whose outstretched arm, holding three swords, nearly touches theirs and forms the apex of a triangle. In a message of heroic self-sacrifice, the brothers swear an oath to fight to the death for their family and country. Enthusiasm for the painting was so intense, its message touched those dissatisfied with the social and political ills of the time so directly, it was interpreted as a call to arms for one's country-a call for revolution. From this time, the French waited with anticipation each of David's paintings for its message, and young artists flocked to his studio to learn from their new messiah.

As revolutionary fervor intensified, David found himself in the role of an artistic and political leader. He joined the revolutionary Jacobin Club, which financed his next major work, the Tennis Court Oath, of 1789-91. Although it was never finished, preliminary drawings survive. The Tennis Court Oath illustrated the pivotal event of June 20, 1789, when the Estates General, comprised of the middle class, met for the first time since 1614 and swore an oath to remain in the tennis court at Versailles until they had written a constitution. As a major break from his Neo-Classical style, this work represented a contemporary event without historical references to antiquity and started a trend to report contemporary events with honest realism.

During the next decade, David created several works immortalizing the events associated with the Revolution and the Reign of Terror. His most successful, the Death of Marat, 1793, depicted with brutal realism the assassination of Marat, Jean-Paul, a major leader during the Reign of Terror, lying in a bathtub of blood-stained water, a fatal knife wound in his chest. His most poignant portrait during this period was a rapidly drawn sketch of the queen as she rode to her execution in 1793, titled Marie Antoinette on Her Way to the Guillotine. Dedicated to the revolutionary cause, David sat at the tribunal hearings of the accused, many of whom were artists. He organized festivals and designed temporary architectural structures for the amusement of the masses. He abolished the Royal Academy, opened the Louvre Palace as a public museum and established the Commune of the Arts, which sponsored non-juried exhibitions.

When his friend, Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de fell from power and was executed, David was forced to appear before the tribunal. Because he was so revered as an artist, he was allowed to live but was imprisoned twice during 1794 and 1795. While in prison, he conceived his next great work and returned to the Neo-Classical style. The Battle of the Romans and Sabines was painted between 1794 and 1799 and illustrates a story from antiquity. The early Roman settlers abducted the neighboring Sabine women and the Sabine men declared war on the Romans to retrieve their wives, mothers and sisters. The four figures arranged along the foreground plane are dominated by a woman, who attempts to stop the senseless killing. The representation of a woman as a heroic figure is unique to his work and the message of reconciliation suggests his ambivalence toward the violence of recent events, undoubtedly realized during his incarcerations.

Depressed by the failure of the Revolution, David proclaimed he would no longer be influenced by men and would be true to his own principles. However, in 1799, he met Napoleon Bonaparte and completed two portraits of the new leader: Napoleon as First Consul and Napoleon at St. Bernard Pass. These works mark the beginning of a new phase in his career as official painter of Napoleon, in which he glorified one man and invented images of heroism as a vehicle of propaganda.

David was a popular portraitist throughout his life and represented characteristic images of noted individuals from the Rococo period through the end of Napoleon's empire. His most admired is in the Neo-Classical style, the famous beauty, Mme Juliette Recamier, painted in 1800, reclining on an ancient chaise lounge inspired by one discovered in Pompeii. As First Painter to Napoleon, he earned the prestigious commission, The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame, 1805-7. The monumental painting, thirty feet wide, portrays the moment Napoleon crowned Josephine in the presence of the Pope, the new emperor's family and court officials. To achieve historical accuracy, each participant posed for David prior to the completion of the painting.

Toward the end of Napoleon's reign as Emperor, David attempted his last Neo-Classical work, choosing a famous military defeat from Greek history, the brave but ill-fated attempt of the three-hundred-man army of the Spartan king, Leonidas to stop thousands of invading Persians in 490 B.C.E. Ironically, this painting was completed in 1815, the year of Napoleon's final defeat and exile.

With the restoration of the monarchy, David went into self-imposed exile to Brussels and died there in 1825. In France, he had many loyal followers, and his leading student, Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres, became president of the restored Academy and perpetuated his style well into the middle of the nineteenth century.

Further Reading:

Anita Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, 1980.

Dorothy Johnson, Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis, 1993.

Lynne Lokensgard

Lamar University