The early career of the French painter Jacques-Louis David (often known as Louis David) followed a well established pattern. Born in Paris, he trained initially in the studio of a successful painter, finishing his education at the French Academy in Rome. On his return to France, he emerged as a leading exponent of Neoclassicism. He held official positions during both the Revolutionary period and the Empire, and was particularly active in the former. Throughout his life he was also much in demand as a portrait-painter. Exiled at the Restoration of 1815 for his continued support of Napoleon, he passed the remaining ten years of his life in Brussels, painting some outstanding works.
The France in which David grew up was ripe for both political and artistic revolution. The Rococo style of the previous generation—best exemplified by the decorative, sentimental, and sometimes overtly erotic work of François Boucher (1703 - 70) and Fragonard (1732 - 1806)— was fading. A reaction was taking place in the paintings of such artists as David's teacher Joseph-Marie Vien, who favored a return to the more classical tendencies of French art, particularly those portrayed in the 17th century by Poussin. In addition, theorists such as J.J. Winckelmann were becoming fashionable by stressing the beauty, and above all the correctness, of antique Greek and Roman art. At the same time, archaeologists were bringing to light antiquities which profoundly affected artists' conceptions of bygone days.
David progressed slowly towards the style that was to make him the most influential French painter of his time. His Antiochus and Stratonice (1774; Musée de l'École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris), won him the Prix de Rome, entitling him to spend four years in Italy at the French government's expense. The picture does not break radically with the taste of the day. The classicizing style that was to dominate French art under David's leadership is evident in its subject matter, but the Rococo is still strongly suggested in the crowded composition and consciously pretty colors. David's five years in Rome, from 1775 to 1780, which he spent studying ancient monuments and sculptures as well as works of the Renaissance and the Baroque, convinced him of the need to adopt a more rigorously classical approach.
Back in France, David finally drew together all the elements associated with Neoclassicism in his Oath of the Horatii (1785; Louvre, Paris), called by one contemporary critic “the most beautiful painting of the century”. The background is as sparse and rigid as a Greek theater; the figures of the warriors, as unbending in their bearing as in their intent, are placed in parallel rather than receding planes. The painting echoes perfectly the “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” so favored by Winckelmann. This work has often been cited as heralding the Revolution. Although this seems far-fetched, David himself quickly became involved when hostilities began in 1789. He voted for the death of the King in 1793, as a member of the National Assembly, and allied himself with the extreme faction headed by Maximilien Robespierre. His support of the group led to his imprisonment in 1795, but fortunately he was not long incarcerated. All his work of this period demonstrates his involvement, be it his organization of festivals celebrating Revolutionary events, or such a drawing as the Oath of the Tennis Court (1791; William Hayes Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Mass.). Echoing in its gestures the Oath of the Horatii, the work breaks new ground in showing a large number of identifiable figures engaged in an important contemporary event.
Another side of David's work is shown by his portraits—often intimate, even when executed on a large scale as in Lavoisier and his Wife (1791; Metropolitan Museum, New York). The superb Death of Marat (1793; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels) is much more than the mere representation of a man known and admired by David: it is conceived almost in the manner of an icon, glorifying the Revolutionary who has been assassinated in his bath for his beliefs. Portraiture remained an important element in David's art throughout his life, and it assumes a new importance in his relations with Napoleon Bonaparte, who, David declared, was “his hero”. Napoleon knew nothing about art, but, recognizing David's fame, he wished to have him at his service in order to fullfil his aim of propagating his image throughout Europe. David's first Napoleonic commission was Bonaparte Crossing the Saint Bernard Pass (1800; Versailles), very different in conception from the somber Death of Marat. This latter, painted in quiet shades of green and brown, has none of the splendor in the portrait of the ambitious and victorious Consul and General. Under the Napoleonic regime, when David became Premier Peintre to the Emperor, he did not entirely neglect his first love, classical painting. However, as can be seen from Leonidas at Thermopylae (Louvre, Paris), worked and reworked from 1800 to 1814, this style could not compete with the brilliance of contemporary reality. Depicting as it does a group of warriors condemned in advance to defeat, the work was totally out of key with the times. As Napoleon himself told David, “You are wasting your time painting losers”.
The two vast works David executed to commemorate Napoleon's coronation, The Coronation of Josephine or Le Sacre (1808; Louvre, Paris), and the Distribution of the Eagles (1810; Versailles), are much more successful. Here David draws his inspiration from the Flemish school, especially Rubens, rather than from the Antique; he even visited Belgium to study Flemish works in situ before embarking on his own paintings. Both of these immense canvases caused David considerable trouble, as he had to fit his conception to the vacillating demands of the self-conscious Emperor, over-anxious to ensure a flattering likeness to himself and his retinue. Despite the difficulties, however, these works are unrivaled in showing, if not the truth of life under Napoleon, then the glory he wished to evoke.
At the Restoration David was in an untenable position. True to Napoleon, he refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the new monarch, Louis XVIII, and was forced into exile, living in Brussels until his death. There he continued to paint, and kept in touch with his former pupils: many of them, for example Gros, Gérard, and Ingres, had now become famous. David's own art had suffered, however. He was still convinced that the Antique was the only serious subject for a painter, but was unable to forget the influence of contemporary events; the work of his last years lacks the tautness and vitality that had made him preeminent.
Further reading Brookner, A. Jacques-Louis David, London (1980). Friedländer, W. David to Delacroix, Cambridge, Mass. (1966). Hautecoeur, L. Louis David, Paris (1954). Herbert, R.L. David's “Brutus”, London (1972). Rosenblum, R. Transformations in late 18th Century Art, Princeton (1970).
French painter Jacques-Louis David was arguably the single most important European painter between 1785 and 1815. His working life spanned the...
He trained under Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), before winning the Prix de Rome (1774), which enabled him to study in Italy...