Name : Jacques-Louis David
Born: August 30, 1748
Born Place: Paris, France
Died: December 29, 1825
Death Place: Brussels, Belgium
On view: National Gallery of Art, Louvre Museum, etc
Influenced by: Nicolas Poussin, François Boucher, Joseph-Marie Vien
Jacques-Louis David (30 August 1748 – 29 December 1825) was a 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 classical austerity and severity and heightened feeling, harmonizing with the moral climate of the final years of the Ancien Régime.
David later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release: that of Napoleon, The First Consul of France. At this time he developed his Empire style, notable for its use of warm Venetian colours. After Napoleon’s fall from Imperial power and the Bourbon revival, David exiled himself to Brussels, then in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, where he remained until his death. David had many 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 French family in Paris on 30 August 1748. When he was about nine his father was killed in a duel and his mother left him with his well-off architect uncles. They saw to it that he received an excellent education at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, University of Paris, but he was never a good student—he had a facial tumor that impeded his speech, and he was always preoccupied with drawing. He covered his notebooks with drawings, and he once said, “I was always hiding behind the instructor’s chair, drawing for the duration of the class”. Soon, he desired to be a painter, but his uncles and mother wanted him to be an architect. He overcame the opposition, and went to learn from François Boucher (1703–1770), 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. There, David attended the Royal Academy, based in what is now the Louvre.
Each year the Academy awarded an outstanding student the prestigious Prix de Rome, which funded a 3- to 5-year stay in the Eternal City. Since artists were now revisiting classical styles, the trip to Rome provided its winners the opportunity to study the remains of classical antiquity and the works of the Italian Renaissance masters at first hand. Each pensionnaire was lodged in the French Academy’s Roman outpost, which from the years 1737 to 1793 was the Palazzo Mancini in the Via del Corso. David competed for, and failed to win, the prize for three consecutive years (with Minerva Fighting Mars, Diana and Apollo Killing Niobe’s Children and The Death of Seneca). Each failure contributed to his lifelong grudge against the institution. After his second loss in 1772, David went on a hunger strike, which lasted two and a half days before the faculty encouraged him to continue painting. Confident he now had the support and backing needed to win the prize, he resumed his studies with great zeal—only to fail to win the Prix de Rome again the following year. Finally, in 1774, David was awarded the Prix de Rome on the strength of his painting of Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus’ Disease, a subject set by the judges. In October 1775 he made the journey to Italy with his mentor, Joseph-Marie Vien, who had just been appointed director of the French Academy at Rome.
While in Italy, David mostly studied the works of 17th-century masters such as Poussin, Caravaggio, and the Carracci. Although he declared, “the Antique will not seduce me, it lacks animation, it does not move”, David filled twelve sketchbooks with drawings that he and his studio used as model books for the rest of his life. He was introduced to the painter Raphael Mengs (1728–1779), who opposed the Rococo tendency to sweeten and trivialize ancient subjects, advocating instead the rigorous study of classical sources and close adherence to ancient models. Mengs’ principled, historicizing approach to the representation of classical subjects profoundly influenced David’s pre-revolutionary painting, such as The Vestal Virgin, probably from the 1780s. Mengs also introduced David to the theoretical writings on ancient sculpture by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), the German scholar held to be the founder of modern art history. As part of the Prix de Rome, David toured the newly excavated ruins of Pompeii in 1779, which deepened his belief that the persistence of classical culture was an index of its eternal conceptual and formal power. During the trip David also assiduously studied the High Renaissance painters, Raphael making a profound and lasting impression on the young French artist.
Jacques-Louis David was, in his time, regarded as the leading painter in France, and arguably all of Western Europe; many of the painters honored by the restored Bourbons following the French Revolution had been David’s pupils. David’s student Antoine-Jean Gros for example, was made a Baron and honored by Napoleon Bonaparte’s court. Another pupil of David’s, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres became the most important artist of the restored Royal Academy and the figurehead of the Neoclassical school of art, engaging the increasingly popular Romantic school of art that was beginning to challenge Neoclassicism. David invested in the formation of young artists for the Rome Prize, which was also a way to pursue his old rivalry with other contemporary painters such as Joseph-Benoît Suvée, who had also started teaching classes. To be one of David’s students was considered prestigious and earned his students a lifetime reputation. He also called on the more advanced students, such as Jérôme-Martin Langlois, to help him paint his large canvases.
Despite David’s reputation, he was more fiercely criticized right after his death than at any point during his life. His style came under the most serious criticism for being static, rigid, and uniform throughout all his work. David’s art was also attacked for being cold and lacking warmth. David, however, made his career precisely by challenging what he saw as the earlier rigidity and conformity of the French Royal Academy’s approach to art. David’s later works also reflect his growth in the development of the Empire style, notable for its dynamism and warm colors. It is likely that much of the criticism of David following his death came from David’s opponents; during his lifetime David made a great many enemies with his competitive and arrogant personality as well as his role in the Terror. David sent many people to the guillotine and personally signed the death warrants for King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. One significant episode in David’s political career that earned him a great deal of contempt was the execution of Emilie Chalgrin. A fellow painter Carle Vernet had approached David, who was on the Committee of Public Safety, requesting him to intervene on behalf of his sister, Chalgrin. She had been accused of crimes against the Republic, most notably possessing stolen items. David refused to intervene in her favor, and she was executed. Vernet blamed David for her death, and the episode followed him for the rest of his life and after.
In the last 50 years David has enjoyed a revival in popular favor and in 1948 his two-hundredth birthday was celebrated with an exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and at Versailles showing his life’s works. Following World War II, Jacques-Louis David was increasingly regarded as a symbol of French national pride and identity, as well as a vital force in the development of European and French art in the modern era.