art of Jacques-Louis David embodies the style known as
Neoclassicism, which flourished in
France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Jacques-Louis David championed a style of rigorous contours, sculpted
forms, and polished surfaces. Image-maker to Napoleon. Political exile.
Jacques-Louis David was the most famous and controversial artist of the
late 18th and early 19th centuries. Jacques-Louis David breathed new
life into history painting with his rigorously constructed compositions,
which distilled complex stories to their essential elements. His spare,
taut style influenced countless other artists in France and abroad.
Passionately committed to artistic freedom and innovation, Jacques-Louis
David experimented constantly with style and subject matter.
Jacques-Louis David was born into a wealthy family in Paris on August 30, 1748. When he was about nine his father was killed in a duel and his mother left him with his prosperous architect uncles. They saw to it that he received an excellent education at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, but Jacques-Louis David was never a good student: Jacques-Louis David had a facial tumor that impeded his speech, and he was always preoccupied with drawing. He covered his notebooks with drawings, and Jacques-Louis David 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. Jacques-Louis David overcame the opposition, 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 Jacques-Louis David's tutelage, he would send David to his friend Joseph-Marie Vien, a painter who embraced the classical reaction to Rococo. There Jacques-Louis David attended the Royal Academy, based in what is now the Louvre.
In all his historical paintings done in the years immediately preceding the great revolution, Jacques-Louis David worked hard to introduce the themes of the triumph and role of reason. "Brutus Returning Home after Having Sentenced His Sons for Plotting a Tarquinian Restoration and Conspiring against Roman Freedom; the Lictors Brint their Bodies to be Buried." (shown here) tells a tragic story of betrayal. Having led the fight which overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic, Brutus saw his own sons participate in a plot to restore the monarchy. As a judge, he was called upon to render the verdict, and unhesitatingly condemned his own boys to death. In 1789, for Jacques-Louis David to bring up such a subject was hotly controversial, and reveals how deeply committed the artist was to the new ideas and enlightenment principals. Indeed, had the revolution not occurred, this picture would doubtlessly could never have been exhibited publicly. But in the exciting days following the fall of the Bastille, Jacques-Louis David's picture was seen as a republican manifesto, and greatly raised David's reputation.
Jacques-Louis David was in active sympathy with the Revolution, becoming a Deputy and voting for the execution of Louis XVI. His position was unchallenged as the painter of the Revolution. Jacques-Louis David's three paintings of `martyrs of the Revolution', though conceived as portraits, raised portraiture into the domain of universal tragedy. After the fall of Robespierre in 1794, Jacques-Louis David was imprisoned, but was released on the plea of his wife, who had previously divorced him because of his Revolutionary sympathies. They were remarried in 1796, and Jacques-Louis David's painting "Intervention of the Sabine Women" (shown top of page), begun while he was in prison, is said to have been painted to honor her, its theme being one of love prevailing over conflict. It was also interpreted at the time, however, as a plea for conciliation in the civil strife that France suffered after the Revolution and it was the work that re-established David's fortunes and brought him to the attention of Napoleon, who appointed Jacques-Louis David his official painter.
In 1797 Jacques-Louis David met Napoleon and was granted a single portrait sitting, during which David did not manage to paint much, but was absolutely captivated by Napoleon's personality. Later on Jacques-Louis David created many paintings devoted to his new hero and his relatives. In 1802 Napoleon founded the Legion of Honor, and Jacques-Louis David was made a Knight of the Legion, the first of the five ranks of the order, in December 1803. During the following years he would reach the third rank of the order, a Commander or Commandant of the Legion of Honor.
After the fall of Napoleon and the Bourbon restoration Jacques-Louis David was banished in 1816 as a regicide, and fled to Brussels, where he spent his last 10 years. During this period Jacques-Louis David returned to mythological subjects and intimate portraiture. The completion in 1814 of Jacques-Louis David's monumental history painting, "Leonidas at Thermopylae" (shown here), coincided with the fall of Napoleon; not surprisingly, the image of the courageous Spartan king, facing imminent defeat in battle, met with Napoleon's disapproval in the aftermath of his disastrous Russian campaign.
Jacques-Louis David died on 29 December 1825 and was buried at the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode cemetery in Brussels. The influence of Jacques-Louis David was very high. He was an outstanding teacher; from Jacques-Louis David's studio came Gros, Gérard, Ingres, and many others. The art of their teacher and their own influenced the European art until Impressionism.