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Jacques Louis David

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

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 Sources

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

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David, Jacques-Louis (1748–1825)


DAVID, JACQUES-LOUIS (17481825), French painter. David was born in Paris to a middle-class family of merchants. He was related to the famous rococo painter François Boucher (17031770). He attended the Collège des Quatre Nations and studied art with the neoclassical painter Joseph-Marie Vien at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. As a student, David lived in the Louvre with his tutor, Michel Sedaine, who was secretary of the Royal Academy of Architecture in addition to being a playwright. Through Sedaine, David came into contact with Enlightenment intellectuals such as Denis Diderot (17131784) who influenced his aesthetic development and ideas. David won the coveted Roman fellowship prize the Prix de Rome in 1774 and lived and studied at the French Academy in Rome until 1779. In Rome he interacted with an international community of artists and intellectuals as he studied history, aesthetics, anatomy, and perspective. He drew extensively from antique sculpture as well as celebrated Renaissance and baroque religious paintings and sculptures that he encountered in churches in Rome and numerous other Italian cities.

Through Vien, who had become director of the French Academy in Rome, David received his first major commission, to paint St. Roch Interceding for the Plague-Stricken (17801781), a monumental religious work made for the chapel of the plague hospital in Marseilles and exhibited with great success at the Paris Salon of 1781. He followed this with another monumental religious painting, Christ on the Cross, commissioned by the Maréchale de Noailles and exhibited at the Salon of 1782. Although David, like his contemporaries, prepared for a career in which religious commissions would be expected, aesthetic developments and political events led him to represent primarily antique themes and contemporary history.

Influenced by the neoclassical movement in art and culture, toward the end of his fellowship in Rome David executed a monumental drawing, a frieze in the antique style, depicting the Funeral of a Hero (17781780). The contour style and emphasis on corporeal expression that dominate this composition became the hallmark of his great masterpieces of the 1780s. Works that were acclaimed at the Salon exhibitions in Paris include Belisarius Receiving Alms (1781), Andromache Mourning Hector (1783), and the Oath of the Horatii (17841785). The Oath, which David painted on a return visit to Rome in 1784, with its depiction of heroic and powerful human figures naturalistically rendered and its emphasis on gesture and corporeal form, transformed French and European art. David was a philhellene and in the 1780s became part of the intellectual circle of the Trudaine brothers, owners of one of the largest classical libraries in Europe. Inspired by Plato's writings, in 1787 David painted the complex and meditative Death of Socrates for Michel Trudaine de la Sablière. Due to illness he did not complete its pendant, the Love of Paris and Helen, until 1789. Both of these paintings had a direct impact on the development of romantic Hellenism in French art.

David's monumental The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons was exhibited at the Salon of 1789 shortly after the beginning of the Revolution. The problematics and ambiguities of this work, which questions the morality of politics when it conflicts with the family sphere, were forgotten during the early 1790s when the painting was understood as an exemplum of personal and familial sacrifice for the good of the country. David embraced the cause of the Revolution and the Republic, serving as a deputy to the national convention from 1792 to 1794. During this time he planned, promoted, and organized revolutionary festivals and funerals, designing temporary monuments, costumes, and emblems for these vast parades. He also contributed paintings to the revolutionary cause, including a large-scale sketch for The Oath of the Tennis Court (1791, never executed due to political vicissitudes), and to the martyrs of revolution, Lepelletier de St. Fargeau (1793) and The Death of Marat (1793), which became an icon of the Revolution, and Bara (1794).

In 1794 and again in 1795 David was imprisoned for his political role, and there began work on his next monumental history painting, the Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), a remarkable encomium to the heroic women who ensured the founding of Rome by rushing onto the battlefield with their infants and children in order to end an internecine war between the Romans and the Sabines. Its pendant, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), represents the king of Sparta and his private army of three hundred men about to give up their lives by defending the pass at Thermopylae against the vast Persian army, thereby ensuring victory for the Greeks. Together, these works constitute a meditation on the precarious enterprise of founding and preserving Western civilization.

As Napoleon rose to power he called upon David to promote his heroic image and the ceremonies of empire. After painting the great equestrian portrait of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (1800) David was named first painter to the emperor (1804) and completed two of four vast compositions, The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I (18061807) and the Distribution of the Eagles (1810). The Coronation commemorates the event during which Napoleon established himself as emperor and inaugurated his newly appointed court. David depicted himself along with family and friends as spectators but also lavished attention on the pope and his retinue at the crossing of Notre Dame Cathedral. In the Distribution of the Eagles David reveals his growing dissatisfaction with the empire by depicting the emperor as a diminutive figure and emphasizing the energy and vitality of the armies over Napoleon himself.

When Louis XVIII became king in 1816, thereby restoring the Bourbons after Napoleon's fall, David was sent into exile in Brussels along with many fellow regicides who had voted for the death of Louis XVI in 1792. While in Brussels, David created a series of monumental mythological paintings that constitute a new direction in his art and are among the most surprisingand strangeworks of his entire career. Using stylistic and compositional innovations, David explored the complex psychology of love, eros, and eroticism in Amor and Psyche (1817), The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis (1818), The Anger of Achilles (1819), and Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces (1824). In these works, continuing a trend begun early in his career, David was inspired by multiple literary and visual sources but created new subjects or episodes that differed from precedents.

In exile David continued to paint portraits, creating masterpieces of the genre in such works as Sieyès (1817), Madame Morel de Tangry and her Daughters (c. 1820), and Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte (1821). In these penetrating works David continued his exploration of the psychology of personality begun in portraits completed at the height of his earlier career, such as the famous Lavoisier and His Wife (1788), Pope Pius VII (1805), and Napoleon in his Study (1812), among many others.

David was celebrated as a dedicated teacher and trained vast numbers of students, including some of the major artists of the early nineteenth century such as Antoine-Jean Gros, François-Pascal-Simon Gérard, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy, Jean-Auguste-Dominic Ingres, and the sculptor Pierre-Jean David d'Angers.

See also Diderot, Denis ; France, Art in ; Painting ; Revolutions, Age of ; Salons .


Brookner, Anita. Jacques-Louis David. London, 1987.

Dowd, D. L. Pageant-Master of the Republic: Jacques-Louis David and the Revolution. Lincoln, Nebr., 1948.

Hautecoeur, Louis. Louis David. Paris, 1954.

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

Schnapper, Antoine. David: Témoin de son Temps. Fribourg, Switzerland, 1980.

Schnapper, Antoine, et al. Jacques-Louis David, 17481825. Paris, 1989.

Dorothy Johnson

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David, Jacques-Louis

Jacques-Louis David (zhäk-lwē´ dävēd´), 1748–1825, French painter. David was the virtual art dictator of France for a generation. Extending beyond painting, his influence determined the course of fashion, furniture design, and interior decoration and was reflected in the development of moral philosophy. His art was a sudden and decisive break with tradition, and from this break "modern art" is dated.

David studied with Vien at the French Academy, and after winning the Prix de Rome (which had been refused him four times, causing him to attempt suicide by starvation) he accompanied Vien to Italy in 1775. His pursuit of the antique, nurtured by his time in Rome and his viewing of the ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum, directed the classical revival in French art. He borrowed classical forms and motifs, predominantly from sculpture, to illustrate a sense of virtue he mistakenly attributed to the ancient Romans. Consumed by a desire for perfection and by a passion for the political ideals of the French Revolution, David imposed a fierce discipline on the expression of sentiment in his work. This inhibition resulted in a distinct coldness and rationalism of approach.

David's reputation was made by the Salon of 1784. In that year he produced his first masterwork, The Oath of the Horatii (Louvre). This work and his celebrated Death of Socrates (1787; Metropolitan Mus.) as well as Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789; Louvre) were themes appropriate to the political climate of the time. They secured for David vast popularity and success. David was admitted to the Académie royale in 1780 and worked as court painter to the king.

As a powerful republican David, upon being elected to the revolutionary Convention, voted for the king's death and for the dissolution of the Académie royale both in France and in Rome. In his paintings of the Revolution's martyrs, especially in his Marat (1793; Brussels), his iron control is softened and the tragic portraits are moving and dignified. The artist was imprisoned for a time at the end of the Reign of Terror.

David emerged to become First Painter to the emperor and foremost recorder of Napoleonic events (e.g., Napoleon Crossing the Saint Bernard Pass, 1800–01; Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, 1805–07; and The Distribution of the Eagles, 1810) and a sensitive portraitist (e.g., Mme Récamier, 1800; Louvre). In this period David reached the height of his influence, but his painting, more than ever the embodiment of neoclassical theory, was again static and deadened in feeling. The Battle of the Romans and Sabines (1799; Louvre) portrayed the battle through the use of physically frozen figures.

During the Bourbon Restoration David spent his last years in Brussels, where he painted a masterful series of portraits, mainly of fellow refugees from the Napoleonic court. Although he belittled the genre, it was as a portraitist that he was at his most distinguished. Using living, rather than sculptured models, he allowed his spontaneous sentiment to be revealed in the closely observed portrayals. These last portraits, such as Antoine Mongez and His Wife Angelica (1812; Lille), Bernard (1820; Louvre), and Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte (1821; Getty Mus.) are enormously vital and in them the seeds of the new romanticism are clearly discernible.


See D. L. Dowd, Pageant-Master of the Republic (1948); J. Lindsay, Death of the Hero (1960); W. Roberts, Jacques Louis David, Revolutionary Artist (1989).

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David, Jacques Louis

David, Jacques Louis (1748–1825) 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).;

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