Jacques-Louis David was a French Neo-classical painter who became the most influential artist of his time. David would move away from the Rococo frivolity towards his cerebral historical paintings, especially inspired by Greco-Roman art. As an active supporter and influential figure during the French Revolution, David became a dictator of the arts. Later, the artist's work became very prominent during Napoleon Bonaparte's reign.
Jacques Louis-David was born in August 1748 to a wealthy family but had an unusual childhood. Around the age of nine, he lost his father after he was murdered in a duel, leaving his mother no choice but to hand over her child with his two uncles. They were both architects and strived for the young David to have the best education - hoping that he'd follow in the same career as his mother.
Although he studied at the prestigious Collège des Quatre-Nations, at the University of Paris, David was not a model student. He was more interested in drawing and already wished to become a painter. He eventually followed the path he dreamt for himself, going against his family, and began to study with the Rococo painter François Boucher, one of the most popular painters of the time. But Boucher found it a better choice for David to study under Joseph-Marie Vien at the Royal Academy since Vien was more in tune with the Classical renewal currently happening in art.
During his time of studies, David entered the Prix de Rome - one of the most prestigious prizes of Academic art. He failed at his first three attempts, including the rejected piece The Combat of Mars and Minerva, resulting in a dreadful grudge against the Academy. The painter persisted and finally won the Prix de Rome in 1774.
In October of the next year, David and his mentor Vien traveled to Italy, where they studied the artworks made by the masters of the XVII century, like Caravaggio and Poussin. Although David found the pieces stagnant, he completed more than ten sketchbooks with studies and drawings he gathered from his trip in which he would use as a reference for years to come. During this period, he met Anton Raphael Mengs, one of the Neo-Classical movements' precursors, who became a significant inspiration for David and his work.
In 1779, David took an influential trip to Pompeii, which strengthened his belief in the power of Classical culture. He also deeply studied the masters of the High Renaissance, like Raphael.
By 1780, the artist returned to Paris. Soon, he was made a member of the Royal Academy, sending the institution two paintings, which were both exhibited at the Salon of 1781, a great honor for a young artist. David's artworks were praised by his fellow painters. However, the Academy's administration was rather hostile towards David's quick upstart and often arrogant manners.
Following the Salon, the King would grant the artist lodging at the Louvre, which at the time was still the Royal Palace, not yet the distinguished Louvre Museum. This was an ancient and highly coveted privilege for artists.
Soon, the artist returned to Rome, where he painted his Oath of the Horatii in 1784. In this artwork, the artist referenced Enlightenment values, especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau's social contract. The picture tells an ancient Roman legend in which two warring cities, Rome and Alba Longa, would resolve their quarrel through a battle between three men of each city, rather than sending full-fledged armies.
The artwork depicts the moment where three brothers pledge compliance with their father in defending the city of Rome to their death. The brothers are rigidly in the same position as if their bodies are combined. Symbolically it suggested the act of men unifying under the powers of the state. According to scholars, the painting also explores elements of gender roles.
While the men are depicted with strong straight lines, enhancing the sense of virility, the women are represented in a rather fragile manner, as well as on a smaller scale on the right side of the composition, as the patriarch turns his back to them. According to scholars, this element is associated with Rousseau's concept of the separate spheres, where the only man should delve into important matters such as war or politics, while women should focus only on raising children and taking care of the house.
The notion that one should be ready for the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the homeland and the state was also explored in David's Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons. The painting represents the moment when Lucius Junius Brutus, the legendary leader and founder of the Roman Republic, is presented with his sons' bodies, whose executions were demanded by Brutus himself, for they were conspiring against the republic. Due to the political tensions of pre-revolutionary France, David's artwork was prohibited from being exhibited by royal authorities due to its republican and anti-monarchic undertones.
In 1787, David exhibited his famous The Death of Socrates in the Salon, depicting the moment prior to the famous philosopher's suicide with poisonous hemlock. While Socrates' followers display a wide array of negative emotions, the philosopher stands firmly, raising his arm as if giving his final lecture. The other hand grasps the poisonous drink. He is confident and unhesitating despite his imminent demise. Socrates preferred to die than to give up his ideas and teachings. As the French Revolution drew near, concepts of one's resistance against an unjust power became increasingly popular, and The Death of Socrates did not go unnoticed.
The French Revolution took place in 1789, and David was one of its avid supporters, as well as and personal friend of some of the movement's leading figures, such as Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre. David began to create his Tennis Court Oath, a pivotal movement of the Revolution. However, it remained unfinished due to the volatile political moment since many of the figures represented would by then be considered enemies of the Revolution. According to scholars, David's Tennis Court Oath, Leonidas at Thermopylae, and The Distribution of the Eagles were inspired by freemason rituals. The artist was also discovered to be a member of a Masonic Lodge.
David was also a member of the extremist Jacobin Club and would vote in favor of the execution of King Louis XVI in the National Convention in 1793. In the same year, David's friend Jean-Paul Marat was assassinated by the political opponent Charlotte Corday. Following the incident, David created his The Death of Marat, which arguably became David's most famous artworks and one of the most known images of the French Revolution and the period of The Terror.
The homage to his was hasty; however, it nevertheless resulted in a striking composition, regarded as the Pieta of the Revolution. In fact, many elements of the composition - from the position of the subject to the wound that led to his demise - relate to several images from the deposition of Christ executed during the Renaissance, especially Michelangelo's Pieta. David elevated Marat's image to one of a martyr.
Following the King's execution, David became a member of the notorious Committee of General Security, responsible for investigating treason cases and reporting suspects to the Revolutionary Tribunal, which most commonly would lead to execution by guillotine, becoming arguably the main responsible for the Reing of Terror. By the end of the Reing of Terror, following Robespierre's death, it is thought that over 40,000 people were killed, many without a proper trial.
During this period, due to his influence and close relationship with Revolutionary leaders, David became a dictator of the arts effectively. He would even be responsible for the suspension of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. According to scholars, apart from being a Royal institution, which contradicted revolutionary values, it was also probably due to his long-lasting grudge against the institution. However, Robespierre would soon fall from power and was executed along with several of his supporters.
Following the fall of Robespierre, David was also imprisoned. However, he would be spared from the guillotine and eventually released. During this period in prison, the artist conceptualized The Intervention of the Sabine Women, said to represent a visual love letter to his wife, exploring the concept of the triumph of love over conflict. The artwork was also seen as an appeal for the French people to reunite, even though still profoundly scarred and divided after the bloodshed of the Revolution. This artwork would also attract the attention of the soon-to-be emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Soon, David began to develop a new style, regarded by him as the "Pure Greek Style", as opposed to his early "Roman Style". Whereas his older style was executed with strong angles and the main subjects rendered with pronounced muscularity, his new production was made with rounder lines and painterly brushstrokes, resulting in a rather softer overall composition.
This new production was greatly inspired by the works of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a distinguished archeologist and art historian responsible for articulating the fundamental differences between Greek, Roman, and Greco-Roman art, often regarded as the father of modern archeology.
When David was finally released, France was already profoundly changed. He would soon regain his distinguished position as an artist and took many pupils, largely retiring himself from political matters. Regarding his new style, the artist stated: "In all human activity the violent and transitory develops first; repose and profundity appear last. The recognition of these latter qualities requires time; only great masters have them, while their pupils have access only to violent passions."
David became an admirer of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte from the day they met, struck by the conqueror's classical features. Following his coup d'etat in 1799, Napoleon commissioned David the execution of his Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, arguably one of the figure's most famous renderings.
In this artwork, Napoleon is depicted heroically riding a beautiful steed in inhospitable terrain, glancing defiantly towards the viewer. David would compare the French Emperor's image to those of great conquerors of the past, Charlemagne and Hannibal, whose names are inscribed on the rocky terrain on the picture's lower-left corner. All the elements of the composition suggest a forward trajectory, from Napoleon's hand to his golden cape and the manes of his horse.
The painting aimed to highlight Napoleon's heroic qualities and capacity to lead his people no glory despite hardships, especially relevant elements for a fractured country in the aftermath of the Revolution. However, the composition is not completely accurate in historical terms. Although the Bonaparte's crossing with his troops through the Alps indeed happened, the conqueror was riding a mule through a narrow path, rather than the vast terrain depicted in David's artwork.
Following the proclamation of the French empire in 1804, the artist was appointed as the regime's official painter. By the end of the same year, Napoleon was coronated. David would register the event with his magnificent Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine 1805-07 impressive composition with over six meters tall and ten meters wide. Said painting is one of the most famous representatives of David's Empire style.
Following Napoleon's fall and the return of the Royal Bourbon to power, David became listed as a former revolutionary and Bonapartist. Although the Royal family granted the artist amnesty and even a court painter position, David opted for exiling himself in Brussels. During his period in Brussels, David trained and influenced Brusseleer artists such as Ignace Brice and Francois-Joseph Navez.
The artist would also create his last masterpiece Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces. In this picture, we see David's new style fully developed. The subjects are immersed in a dreamy and supernatural setting, rather than a realist one. The composition is overall softer. The rigid and dominant male figures were replaced by female figures as the main subjects of the painting, especially considering the work's narrative. Mars, the Roman God of war, is overpowered by the Goddess of love Venus and the Three Graces.
The painting was purposely intended to be his last as if making a statement that he could excel in his artistic qualities until the very end. Jacques-Louis David passed away in December of 1825 at the age of 77 after being struck by a carriage while leaving the theater.
Jacques-Louis David consolidated his name as the pre-eminent French painter of his era. He exerted his influence through the French Revolution and the subsequent reign of Napoleon I, effectively being a dictator of the arts. David had several pupils during his career, and his influence would be felt for years to come. Probably his most famous pupil in the Neo-classical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
"The artist must be a philosopher. Socrates the skilled sculptor, Jean-Jacques [Rousseau] the good musician, and the immortal Poussin, tracing on the canvas the sublime lessons of philosophy, are so many proofs that an artistic genius should have no other guide except the torch of reason."
- Jacques-Louis David