David, Jacques-Louis (1748–1825)

views updated May 11 2018


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 andPsyche (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

Jacques Louis David

views updated Jun 08 2018

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. □

David, Jacques-Louis

views updated May 18 2018

Jacques-Louis David




The artist who was to revolutionize French painting in the later eighteenth century was born into a prosperous family that had long distinguished themselves as craftsmen and architects in Paris. The young David was related to the prominent painter François Boucher, and although his family wished David to be apprenticed to him, the elderly Boucher refused. Jacques-Louis came to learn his craft in the studio of Joseph-Marie Vien instead, and somewhat later he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy. Each year, the institution held a competition for its prestigious Prix de Rome, an award that underwrote study in the ancient city, but David was to be rejected for the honor on three occasions, and as a result of the last rejection, he attempted suicide. On the fourth attempt, he finally won the prize and set off to Rome, but in the years that followed he came to harbor a vicious resentment of the artistic establishment in France. He arrived in Rome in 1775, and at the time was little impressed with the art of Antiquity. He struggled to find a way of reconciling his own interests as a painter with the growing popularity of the Neoclassical movement. But on this first journey to Rome, he seems to have spent more time studying the art of seventeenth-century Baroque painters than he did in the observation of antiquities. In particular, the art of the Italian master Guido Reni, as well as the historical paintings of the great French artist Nicholas Poussin, interested him. These works caused him to reject the highly ornamental character of Rococo and instead strive to create works that were an idealized representation of the natural world. After completing several commissions in Rome, he returned to France in 1780 with the intention of becoming a member of the Royal Academy.

Rising Fame.

As an institution affiliated with the crown, the Royal Academy had a long and venerable tradition of training artists, as well as establishing standards for those who worked for the king. When Louis XIV had founded the Academy in the second half of the seventeenth century, a special place had been given to the genre of historical painting, which French masters believed was the most difficult of all genres to capture in a suitably grand manner. To be accepted into the Academy, a painter had to demonstrate his abilities as an historical painter by undertaking a particularly difficult theme. To pass this test, Jacques-Louis David was to paint the subject of Belisarius Begging for Alms, a subject that had a special significance in the early 1780s. By this time the glory years of Louis XIV's reign were long gone, and France's government had by and large been bankrupted by a series of international wars. Its contemporary funding of the American Revolution, too, was another sore spot at the time, as royal finances seemed to be on an ever more perilous course. For decades, the thinkers of the French Enlightenment, the philosophes, had criticized the corruption of the monarchy and the arbitrary and capricious laws that governed the nation. The subject of Belisarius thus spoke to these dilemmas, for the story was about a prestigious ancient Byzantine general who had been destroyed through the corruption of the Emperor Justinian's state. Forced from the halls of power, he had been made to beg. Jacques-Louis David relied on his knowledge of Nicholas Poussin in the great work that he completed in 1781 to capture the moment when Belisarius is recognized by some of his former imperial associates. The painting has a simplicity and directness that was frequently missing in the academic art of the period, and the artist began to acquire a large stable of students, whom he was to keep busy on many large-scale projects over the coming years. Although Belisarius was a great painting, David's mastery over the genre of historical painting continued to grow, as can be seen in the Oath of the Horatii, a work completed in 1784. In the earlier Belisarius, David had intended to caution his viewers about the consequences of state corruption, while in this later canvas he presented a moral tale about the necessity of subverting one's individuality for the greater needs of the state. The painting depicts the moment at which the three sons of the ancient Latin poet swear allegiance to their father before heading off to fight for Rome.

David as Revolutionary.

With the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, the artist faced challenges as well as opportunities. Although he had long since been accepted into the Royal Academy, he had always bristled under its traditions and conventions, and with the rise of revolutionary sentiment he came to devote himself to the institution's abolition, an event that he and other artists were finally to achieve in 1793. He was not initially active as a revolutionary himself, but by 1790 he had joined the radical Jacobin club, and he soon painted the Oath of the Tennis Court, an image that immortalized the vow that members of the Third Estate had taken the year previously at Versailles after having been locked out of their assembly room. David's most influential Revolutionary picture, though, was his Death of Marat, a work that was immediately commissioned in the days that followed this revolutionary leader's assassination by Charlotte Corday in 1793. The work was publicly displayed and exercised a tremendously important emotional impact on the course of the Revolution during the height of terror. Often described as a "secular Pièta," David's Death of Marat remains one of the most powerful images of the Revolution. During these years, too, the artist played a major role by staging a number of revolutionary spectacles, and at the height of the Terror he was to provide history with a famous image of Queen Marie-Antoinette sketched on the tumbrel by which she approached the guillotine. As the Jacobins fell from favor, though, the artist was imprisoned on two separate occasions before being allowed to resume his life as an artist. As greater calm and stability returned to France, David's fortunes revived. He resumed his career as a painter and teacher, although some of his students now found his Neoclassicism out of touch with contemporary realities. He continued to receive many commissions, until the return of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815 forced him into exile in Belgium. He remained there for the rest of his life, continuing to paint the historical pictures and portraits for which he had long been famous.


Anita Brookner, Jacques-Louis David (London: Oxford University Press/British Academy, 1980).

Thomas E. Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).

Dorothy Johnson, Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Warren E. Roberts, Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

David, Jacques-Louis

views updated May 29 2018


DAVID, JACQUES-LOUIS (1748–1825), French painter.

Between 1785 and 1815 Jacques-Louis David was the most important and influential painter in Europe. David's working life spanned the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the Bourbon Restoration.

Born in Paris to a merchant family, he was the pupil of Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809). In 1774 David won the Prix de Rome contest at the Académie Royale and spent October 1775 to July 1780 in Rome. During the 1780s, David created dramatic and didactic paintings on morally elevating subjects such as the Oath of the Horatii (1785), a painting about patriotism and the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the nation. Its severe and spare style based on precise draftsmanship and hard-edged subdued colors was later termed neoclassicism. In 1789, shortly after the storming of the Bastille, he exhibited The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons; the republican nature of Brutus (who rid Rome of the last of its kings, the Tarquins) meant that in following years the painting acquired a political significance that David did not originally intend.

As a liberal David welcomed the promise of social change that the Revolution offered, and from September 1790, when he joined the Jacobin club, he became directly involved in politics. David opposed the privileges and elitism of the Académie Royale and was instrumental in its abolition in 1793. Elected a deputy of the Convention in September 1792, he allied himself closely with the "Mountain" group of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794). In 1793 David voted for the death of Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792) and served a term as president of the Convention in January 1794. Most importantly, David devoted his brush to the revolutionary cause and produced paintings that glorified three Republican martyrs, most notably the moving and iconic Marat at His Last Breath (1793). Here the radical journalist, assassinated by the moderate Charlotte Corday (1768–1793), was transformed into a saint to inspire revolutionary fervor and patriotism. David also designed and organized great Revolutionary festivals that worked as powerful propaganda instruments to unify the new Republic in celebrations of brotherhood and liberty.

At Robespierre's fall in 1794, David narrowly avoided the guillotine and spent a total of six months in prison, painting a Self-Portrait (1794), almost as a defense plea that he was a painter, not a politician. In prison he also started an ambitious history painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women (completed 1799), an image of reconciliation as the Sabine women separate the warring factions of their men folk and the Roman soldiers who have come to reclaim their abducted females. The picture also demonstrated a change in painting style from the muscular Roman bodies of the Horatii to smoother and more sculptural forms.

After release from prison, David vowed that he would no longer follow men but principles, but quickly came under the spell of Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) whom he first painted early in 1798. Only the head was completed in a three-hour sitting. After Napoleon's coup of Brumaire (10 November 1799), David then painted Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), "calm on a stormy horse," as a commission from Charles IV of Spain (r. 1788–1808).

After Napoleon's coronation as Emperor of the French in December 1804, David was appointed his First Painter and charged with commemorating the events of the coronation. The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (also known as Le Sacre, 1805–1808) shows Napoleon crowning a kneeling Josephine in Notre Dame and is a glittering panorama of the new imperial court. To capture the splendor of the event, David moved away from his austere neoclassicism and worked in rich and sumptuous colors.

But David was a clumsy imperial courtier and asked for inflated prices for his work, which resulted in commissions being passed to less expensive artists. His last portrait of Napoleon (1812) was actually commissioned by the Englishman Alexander Douglas (later 10th Duke of Hamilton, 1767–1852). This life-size portrait showed the emperor as both soldier and lawgiver working for the people of France into the early hours of the morning.

After Napoleon's defeat and exile, all regicides were banished and although the restored Bourbon regime offered to let him stay in France, David moved to a frustrating exile in Brussels in 1816. His last large-scale painting, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824) reveals the unsettling combination of the real and the ideal and the overall effect bordered on parody. At his death in December 1824, David was denied burial in France and an impressive funeral was arranged for him by the Belgian government.

See alsoFrench Revolution; Jacobins; Napoleon; Painting.


Bordes, Philippe. Empire to Exile. London, 2005.

Brookner, Anita. Jacques-Louis David. London, 1980.

Crow, Thomas E. Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris. New Haven, Conn., 1985.

David, Jean-Louis Jules. Le Peintre Louis David, 1748–1825: Souvenirs et documents inédits. Paris, 1880.

Delécluze, Etienne-Jean. Louis David, son école et son temps. Paris, 1855. Reprint, with introduction and notes by Jean-Pierre Mouilleseaux. Paris, 1983.

Lee, Simon. David. London, 1999.

Schnapper, Antoine. David. Translated by Helga Harrison. New York, 1982.

Schnapper, Antoine, and Arlette Sérullaz. David 1748–1825. Paris, 1989. Exhibition catalog.

Vaughan, William, and Helen Weston, eds. Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Simon Lee

David, Jacques Louis

views updated Jun 11 2018

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).

http://www.louvre.fr; http://www.metmuseum.org