Jacques-Louis David was a prominent French neoclassical painter. France was one of the countries that received the greatest influence of Neoclassicism during the late 18th century alongside Italy and England. And what a time for David to introduce a more rigid system to French painting that was characterized by its laboriously sculpted forms and contours matched with refined surfaces.
The painting that embodies the abovementioned characteristics is David’s Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, painted in 1789 and is now in Musee du Louvre, Paris. The French painter’s purpose was to paint for the royal family, intellectuals and revolutionaries. He supported the French Revolution as a matter of fact alongside Maximillien Robespierre.
His influence to younger painters was also observable, particularly on his students such as Francois Gerard, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Anne-Louis Girodet Trioson, and Baron Antoine Jean Gros. Some of his most famous works include Oath of the Horatii (1784), The Death of Socrates (1787), The Death of Marat (1793), and The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). Aside from history paintings, Jacques-Louis David also produced portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte and drawings.
Jacques-Louis David was born on August 30, 1748 in Paris. His father came from the ranks of higher nobility but was killed when the young David was only nine years old. Unable to support him, his mother shared custody with his uncles. Fortunately, his uncles were wealthy architects that they were able to send him to a quality school, College des Quatre-Nations.
Although David was receiving quality education, he lagged behind in class because he suffered from a facial tumor that affected his speech. Therefore, he diverted his what could otherwise be intellectual capabilities to painting. Often times, David would draw figures on the cover of his notebooks, which introduced him to the idea of becoming a painter.
However, his family refused to allow him. But they still ended up giving in to the dream job of the young artist. They let them be and joined the workshop of Francois Boucher, a distant relative to the David’s. Boucher was a successful Rococo artist and unfortunately the said style was rapidly getting overtaken by the advent of Neoclassicism.
Therefore, Boucher decided to just recommend David to a more on-trend painter, Joseph-Marie Vien. With the help of Vien, the young Parisian was able to attend the Royal Academy for Painters and Sculptors in Louvre. The academy held the well-known annual arts competition similar to the Prix de Rome, with which the winner will get the chance to study arts in Rome for three to five years.
The Royal Academy will provide everything that the winners needed such as transportation, board and lodging, education, and allowances. There, they have the opportunity to closely study the relics of antiquity and the masterpieces of Italian Renaissance painters. A-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the time, indeed.
No wonder David, with all his might, joined the competition. But sadly, he failed thrice which accumulated to a grudge against the academy. In 1772, he committed a hunger strike for 2 and a half days. This prompted the academy masters to motivate him to paint again, which eventually boosted up his confidence thinking that he finally got the support of the academy.
In 1774, David executed the Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus’ Disease painting and won the competition for it. He then happily journeyed to Rome together with Joseph-Marie Vien in that same year.
For Jacques-Louis David, all roads lead to Rome indeed. While he’s there, he drew and drew until his 12 sketch books were filled up. He would have also met Raphael Mengs who was one of the prominent figures of early Neoclassicism, which was the revival of classical styles in the modern times. Mengs was also a known advocate of bringing back the laborious study of classical works and develop a system based upon it.
Mengs was one of the major sources of influence of Jacques-Louis David. His pre-revolutionary works greatly resembled the principles advocated by the said master. Hence, he also executed rigorous contours and styles that clearly displayed the characteristics of the movement. It was also Mengs that encouraged the French painter to study the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann about classical sculpture.
After completing his scholarship in Rome, he returned to Paris to continue painting for the academy and attend to his responsibilities as a new member. He executed two paintings for the institution to be exhibited at the Salon of 1781, which ended up successfully.
In 1781, the King awarded David an exclusive lodging in Louvre and met M. Pecoul along the transaction. Pecoul, who was the King’s contractor for the buildings, introduced David to his daughter Marguerite Charlotte and encouraged him to marry her. The wedding did happen around that year and Pecoul received money for it and four grandchildren along the way.
By this time, David had been operating his own workshop with approximately 50 students. He also received a public commission for which he must paint Horace defended by his Father subject, but he changed it to Only in Rome can I Paint Romans. Therefore, he was sent to Rome to paint it and he brought along his wife and three of his pupils.
In 1784, David executed Oath of the Horatii which depicts the moral values introduced by the Age of Enlightenment with a slight hint of Rousseau’s philosophy like his take on social contract. The characters, a general, three sons and women symbolize a very republican principle. The act between the sons and the general meant to display unity in the state.
Meanwhile, the three women sitting behind the general depict gender roles, as women are supposed to be protected by men. Plus, confident and upright posture of the three sons compared to the slouching position of the women suggest dualism between the two genders; the powerful and the weak. This dualism is believed to be based on Rousseau’s “separate spheres”.
In 1787, David expressed his intention of wanting to be appointed as Director of the French Academy in the Eternal city. However, the person-in-charge failed to grant him that simply because he was still young but he got his vote of confidence, though.
In that same year, he painted Death of Socrates which would be included in that year’s Salon exhibition. This work was followed by The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, which is now a considered masterpiece. It appealed to the taste of his contemporaries and art collectors, but the celebration was cut-off shortly because the French Revolution had erupted.
All paintings had to undergone a thorough screening process before it could be displayed to public. The palace did not want any politically inclined art works, including portraits of aggressive revolutionaries, which would project anger to people.
Having been a good friend to Robespierre, a revolutionary leader, David became an active supporter of the massive social unrest. He helped in abolishing the old and corrupt system of the administration, voting for the execution of Louis XVI.
At some point, David also attacked the Royal Academy critically because of its hypocrisy. The said institution was also found to be unfavorable of David’s works which agitated the artist because he believed their reasons were personal instead of taking things professionally. Therefore, this led him to develop a propaganda that would initiate a new republican system.
He painted Brutus inspired by the play of Voltaire. He followed this up with a very appealing The Oath of the Tennis Court, which was commissioned work. It was meant to commemorate a significant political event in the country, which was the birth of the Jacobins Party.
The King and Marie Antoinette were executed, a new republic was born, and guillotines took place to get rid of the enemies. It was a bad time for the French at the time and David had been aggressive more than ever for he was one of the leaders of the party responsible for the Reign of Terror. Soon after the war began, the detractors captured Robespierre and was guillotined thereafter.
The absence of the leadership of Robespierre led to the capture of Jacques-Louis David but he dodged the guillotine punishment for he reportedly suffered from stomach pain after drinking a mild poison. He was instead placed in jail and there he painted The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running between the Combatants of 1799.
His prison years turned out to be a productive time for David for he was also able to develop a new style for his art called the Grecian style. This neoclassical style was patterned after the principles of Johann Winckelmann. The Sabine painting was the most concrete example of this new style, which captured the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1796, David was signed an agreement prepared by Quatremere de Quincy that would mean seizing all of his art works in Rome. Nevertheless, he re-connected with his noble clients, one of which was the widow of Alexandre de Beauharnais, who later married Napoleon I.
The Empress asked the Parisian painter to paint her and Napoleon’s coronation day. Subsequently, he painted the Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine in 1804. Oddly enough David grew interest in Napoleon as a leader and as a person to look up to. In 1797, he requested the general to model for him for a sketch just so he can document the classical features of the great military leader.
When the Bourbon family reclaimed the throne after the revolution had transpired, David was offered by King Louis XVIII to be the court painter but David refused apparently. He chose the tougher way, which was excommunication in Brussels.
The exile somehow did him good as he was able to teach younger painters such as Ignace Brice and Francois-Joseph Navez. He also executed some more paintings of mythological narratives but in smaller sizes.
In Brussels, he painted his last major piece named Mars being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces of 1824. In December 1825, Jacques-Louis David died of accident. His remains had to be buried at Brussels Cemetery for the deeds he had done against the former King, but his heart was retrieved and interred at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.