Jacques-Louis David was an influential French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and severity, heightened feeling chiming with the moral climate of the final years of the Ancien Régime. David had a huge number of pupils, making him the strongest influence in French art of the early 19th century, especially academic Salon painting.
Jacques-Louis David was born into a prosperous family in Paris. When he was about nine his father was killed in a duel and his mother left him with his prosperous architect uncles. He received an excellent education but was never a good student: he had a facial tumor that impeded his speech, and he was always preoccupied with drawing. Soon, he desired to be a painter and went to learn from François Boucher, the leading painter of the time, who was also a distant relative. Boucher was a Rococo painter, but tastes were changing, and the fashion for Rococo was giving way to a more classical style. Boucher decided that instead of taking over David's tutelage, he would send David to his friend Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809), a painter who embraced the classical reaction to Rococo.
David attempted to win the Prix de Rome, an art scholarship to the French Academy in Rome, five times. At each failure he became increasingly frustrated with the Academy for denying him the prize, and this dissatisfaction sowed the seeds of a long-standing grudge against the institution. Finally, in 1774, David won the Prix de Rome with his canvas "Érasistrate découvre la raison de la maladie d'Antiochus". He went to Italy with Vien in 1775, as Vien had been appointed director of the French Academy at Rome. While in Italy, David observed the Italian masterpieces and the ruins of ancient Rome. David filled twelve sketchbooks with material that he would derive from for the rest of his life.
David was allowed to stay at the French Academy in Rome for an extra year, but after 5 years in Rome, he returned to Paris. There, he found people ready to use their influence for him, and he was made a member of the Royal Academy. He sent the Academy two paintings, and both were included in the Salon of 1781, a high honor. After the Salon, the King granted David lodging in the Louvre. David marry, M. Pécoul's daughter, contractor of the King's buildings. He was commissioned by the government to paint "Horace defended by his Father" and came back to Rome for this. In Rome, David painted his famous Oath of the Horatii. His revolutionary ideals are also apparent in the Distribution of Eagles. In 1787, David did not become the Director of the French Academy in Rome because they find him too young.
For the salon of 1787, David exhibited his famous Death of Socrates. For his next painting, David created The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons. The work had tremendous appeal for the time. Before the opening of the Salon, the French Revolution had begun. The royal court did not want propaganda agitating the people, so all paintings had to be checked before being hung. David's portrait of Lavoisier, who was a chemist and physicist as well as an active member of the Jacobin party, was banned by the authorities for such reasons. When the newspapers reported that the government had not allowed the showing of The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, the people were outraged, and the royals were forced to give in. The painting was hung in the exhibition, protected by art students. The whole painting was a Republican symbol, and obviously had immense meaning during these times in France.
In the beginning, David was a supporter of the Revolution, a friend of Robespierre and a member of the Jacobin Club. He tried to help destroy the old order; he was a regicide who voted in the National Convention for the Execution of Louis XVI. Soon, David turned his critical sights on the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. This attack was probably caused primarily by the hypocrisy of the organization and their personal opposition against his work, as seen in previous episodes in David's life.
In 1789, Jacques-Louis David attempted to leave his artistic mark on the historical beginnings of the French Revolution with his painting of The Oath of the Tennis Court. David undertook this task not out of personal political conviction but rather because he was commissioned to do so. This event was seen as a symbol of the national unity against the ancien regime. This instance is notable in more ways than one because it eventually led David to finally become involved in politics as he joined the Jacobins. David set out in 1790 to transform the contemporary event into a major historical picture which would appear at the Salon of 1791 as a large pen and ink drawing. David creates an air of drama in this work. The very power of the people appears to be "blowing" through the scene with the stormy weather, in a sense alluding to the storm that would be the revolution.
The history of the demise of David's "The Tennis Court Oath" illustrates the difficulty of creating works of art that portray current and controversial political occurrences. Political circumstances in France proved too volatile to allow the completion of the painting. In this unstable political climate David's work remained unfinished. In June 1791, the King made an ill-fated attempt to flee the country (flight to Varennes). This led to the execution of Louis and Marie-Antoinette. When the new National Convention held its first meeting, David was sitting with his friends Jean-Paul Marat and Robespierre. David voted for the death of the King, causing his wife, a royalist, to divorce him.
When Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793, another man had already died as well — Louis Michel le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau. Le Peletier was killed on the preceding day by a royal bodyguard in revenge for having voted for the death of the King. David was called upon to organize a funeral, and he painted Le Peletier Assassinated. This underscored the courage displayed by Le Peletier and his companions in routing an oppressive king. On 13 July 1793, David's friend Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday with a knife she had hidden in her clothing. The Death of Marat, 1793, became the leading image of the Terror and immortalized both Marat and David in the world of the revolution.
After the King's execution, war broke out between the new Republic and virtually every major power in Europe. David, as a member of the Committee of General Security, contributed directly to the Reign of Terror. At the end David was arrested and placed in prison. There he painted his own portrait, showing him much younger than he actually was. After David's wife visited him in jail, he conceived the idea of telling the story of the Sabine Women. David conceived a new style for this painting, one which he called the "Grecian style", as opposed to the "Roman style" of his earlier historical paintings. This work also brought him to the attention of Napoleon. When David was finally released to the country, France had changed. His wife managed to get him released from prison.
In one of history's great coincidences, David's close association with the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror resulted in his signing of the death warrant for one Alexandre de Beauharnais, a minor noble. De Beauharnais's widow, Rose-Marie Josèphe de Tascher de Beauharnais would later be known to the world as Joséphine Bonaparte, Empress of the French. It was her coronation by her husband, Napoleon I, that David depicted so memorably in the Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine. David had been an admirer of Napoleon from their first meeting. Requesting a sitting from the busy and impatient general, David was able to sketch Napoleon in 1797. Napoleon had high esteem for David, and asked him to accompany him to Egypt in 1798, but David refused, claiming he was too old for adventuring and sending instead his student, Antoine-Jean Gros. After Napoleon's successful coup d'état in 1799, as First Consul he commissioned David to commemorate his daring crossing of the Alps. After the proclamation of the Empire in 1804, David became the official court painter of the regime.
One of the works David was commissioned for was The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame. David was permitted to watch the event. He had plans of Notre Dame delivered and participants in the coronation came to his studio to pose individually, though never the Emperor. On the Bourbons returning to power, David figured in the list of proscribed former revolutionaries and Bonapartists. The new Bourbon King, Louis XVIII, however, granted amnesty to David and even offered him the position of court painter. David refused, preferring self-exile in Brussels. There, he trained and influenced Brussels artists. David created his last great work, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces, from 1822 to 1824. In his later years, David remained in full command of his artistic faculties. In June 1825, he resolved to embark on an improved version of his "Anger of Achilles". By the time David died, the painting had been completed and the commissioner Ambroise Firmin-Didot brought it back to Paris.
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