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Definition: David, Jacques Louis from Philip's Encyclopedia

French painter, a leader of neo-classicism. Influenced by Poussin and Greek and Roman art, David's work was closely tied to his Jacobin views and support for Napoleon during the French Revolution. His most famous work is Oath of the Horatii (1784). Other works include Death of Marat (1793), and Madame Recamier (1799).

Summary Article: David, Jacques-Louis
from The Classical Tradition

French painter and politician, 1748-1825. Born into a prosperous Parisian bourgeois family, David received a classical education at the Collège de Beauvais and the Collège des Quatre Nations, elite preparatory schools where many future leaders of the French Revolution also studied. The curriculum was heavily weighted toward ancient poetry and history, above all Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Livy, and Suetonius. He entered the Royal Academy in 1766 as a student of Joseph-Marie Vien, and he submitted Combat between Minerva and Mars to the Prix de Rome competition in 1770. David was no prodigy; he won the coveted prize that funded four years' residence at the French Academy in Rome on the fourth attempt, with Antiochus and Stratonice. In 1775 he accompanied Vien, the new director of the French Academy, to Rome, where he remained for five years, making hundreds of drawings after ancient sculptures and classicizing works of the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

In 1780 David returned to Paris and for the next decade executed a series of historical paintings based on classical subjects that electrified his contemporaries, including Andromache Mourning Hector (1783), Oath of the Horatii (painted in Rome during a second sojourn there, 1784-1785), Death of Socrates (1787), Paris and Helen (1787-1788), and Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789). David's bold tenebrism and corporeal expressiveness were a complete rejection of the academic late rococo and established neoclassicism as the dominant mode in French art for the next generation.

At the outbreak of the revolution in 1789, the liberal David initiated the epic Oath of the Tennis Court to celebrate the defiance of royal authority. The radicalization of events, however, prevented him from completing it, and by 1792 the painter was deeply involved in radical politics. Elected to the national legislature, in 1793-1794 he became an associate of the Jacobin dictator Maximilien Robespierre and served on the Committee of General Security, which supervised the network of police spies and conducted trials for counterrevolutionary activities. When the Jacobins fell in 1794, David was imprisoned and narrowly escaped execution. During the more moderate Directory government, from 1795 to 1799, he turned to the politically less controversial genre of portraiture. His major achievement during this period, however, was the colossal Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), a metaphorical plea for national reconciliation.

Corruption and war brought down the Directory in 1799 and established Napoleon Bonaparte as the dictator of France under the classical title First Consul. David was initially enthusiastic about the regime and became First Painter of the Empire in 1804. His major works for Napoleon were propaganda machines with antique allusions, since Bonaparte based his rule on classical precedents. In Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800-1801), the general is shown on a rearing horse with his name newly carved on a stone that also bears the names of past conquerors—Hannibal and Charlemagne. David was less enthusiastic about the empire than he had been about the consulate, and his imperial commissions are bombastic and less progressive than his previous work.

After the Bourbons reclaimed the throne following the demise of the empire in 1815, David went into exile in Brussels, where he spent the last ten years of his life painting portraits and erotic mythologies such as Cupid and Psyche (1816) and Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824). Absence from Paris and the rise of the Romantic painters Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix lessened his influence, but David's profound effect on the early modern French school cannot be overestimated.

  • Brookner, A., Jacques-Louis David (London1980).
  • Delécluze, E. J., Louis David, son école et son temps (Paris1855).
  • Johnson, D., Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis (Princeton1993).
C.S.M. J.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

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