Jacques Louis David
Born: Paris, France
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Jacques Louis David was born into a prosperous 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 College des Quatre-Nations, 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 Francois 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, painter who embraced the classical reaction to Rococo. There David attended the Royal Academy, based in what is now the Louvre.
David attempted to win the Prix de Rome, an art scholarship to the French Academy in Rome, four times between 1770 and 1774; once, he lost according to legend because he had not consulted Vien, one of the judges. Another time, he lost because a few other students had been competing for years, and Vien felt David’s education could wait for these other mediocre painters. In protest, he attempted to starve himself to death. Finally, in 1774, David won the Prix de Rome. Normally, he would have had to attend another school before attending the Academy in Rome, but Vien’s influence kept him out of it. 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. He met the influencial early neoclassical painter Raphael Mengs and through Mengs was introduced to the pathbreaking theories of art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. While in Rome, he studied great masters, and came to favor above all others Raphael. In 1779, David was able to see the ruins of Pompeii, and was filled with wonder. After this, he sought to revolutionize the art world with the “eternal” concepts of classicism.
David’s fellow students at the academy found him difficult to get along with, but they recognized his genius. 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. He was praised by his famous contemporary painters, but the administration of the Royal Academy was very hostile to this young upstart. After the Salon, the King granted David lodging in the Louvre, an ancient and much desired privilege of great artists. When the contractor of the King’s buildings, M. Pecol, was arranging with David, he asked the artist to marry his daughter, Marguerite Charlotte. This marriage brought him money and eventually four children. David had his own pupils, about 40 to 50, and was commissioned by the government to paint “Horace defended by his Father”, but Jacques soon decided, “Only in Rome can I paint Romans.” His father in law provided the money he needed for the trip, and David headed for Rome with his wife and three of his students, one of whom, Jean-Germain Drouais, was the Prix de Rome winner of that year.
In Rome, David painted his famous Oath of the Horatii, 1784. In this piece, the artist references Enlightenment values while alluding to Rousseau’s social contract. The republican ideal of the general will becomes the focus of the painting with all three sons positioned in compliance with the father. The Oath between the characters can be read as an act of unification of men to the binding of the state. The issue of gender roles also becomes apparent in this piece, as the women in Horatii greatly contrast the group of brothers. David depicts the father with his back to the women, shutting them out of the oath making ritual; they also appear to be smaller in scale than the male figures. The masculine virility and discipline displayed by the men’s rigid and confident stances is also severely contrasted to the slouching, swooning female softness created in the other half of the composition. Here we see the clear division of male-female attributes which confined the sexes to specific roles, under Rousseau’s popular doctrines.
These themes and motifs would carry on into his later works Oath of the Tennis Court,1791. This piece, although remaining unfinished, was to commemorate the National Assembly’s resolve to take a solemn oath never to disband until the constitution was established and protected; the commitment to self-sacrifice for the republic. Commissioned by the Society of Friends of the Constitution, 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. As in the Oath of the Horatii, David represents the unity of men in the service of a patriotic ideal. What was essentially an act of intellect and reason, David creates with great 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.
These revolutionary ideals are also apparentin the Distribution of Eagles. While Oath of the Horatii and Oath of the Tennis Court stress the importance of masculine self-sacrifice for one’s country and patriotism, the Distribution of Eagles would ask for self-sacrifice for one’s Emperor (Napoleon) and the importance of battlefield glory.
In 1787, David did not become the Director of the French Academy in Rome, which was a position he wanted dearly. The Count in charge of the appointments said David was too young, but said he would support him in 6 to 12 years. This situation would be one of many that would cause him to lash out at the Academy in years to come.
For the salon of 1787, David exhibited his famous Death of Socrates. “Condemned to death, Socrates, strong, calm and at peace, discusses the immortality of the soul. Surrounded by Crito, his grieving friends and students, he is teaching, philosophizing, and in fact, thanking the God of Health, Asclepius, for the hemlock brew which will ensure a peaceful death… The wife of Socrates can be seen grieving alone outside the chamber, dismissed for her weakness. Plato is depicted as an old man seated at the end of the bed.” Critics compared the Socrates with Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Raphael’s Stanze, and one, after ten visits to the Salon, described it as “in every sense perfect”. Denis Diderot said it looked like he copied it from some ancient bas-relief. The painting was very much in tune with the political climate at the time. For this painting, David was not honored by a royal “works of encouragement”.
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 National Assembly had been established, and the Bastille had fallen. 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 painting depicts Lucius Junius Brutus, the Roman leader, grieving for his sons. Brutus’s sons had attempted to overthrow the government and restore the monarchy, so the father ordered their death to maintain the republic. Thus, Brutus was the heroic defender of the republic, at the cost of his own family. On the right, the Mother holds her two daughters, and the grandmother is seen on the far right, in anguish. Brutus sits on the left, alone, brooding, but knowing what he did was best for his country. 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. While others were leaving the country for new and greater opportunities, David stayed to help destroy the old order; he was a regicide who voted in the National Convention for the Execution of Louis XVI. It is uncertain why he did this, as there were many more opportunities for him under the King than the new order; some people suggest David’s love for the classical made him embrace everything about that period, including a republican government.
Others believed that they found the key to the artist’s revolutionary career in his personality. Undoubtedly, David’s artistic sensibility, mercurial temperament, volatile emotions, ardent enthusiasm, and fierce independence might have been expected to help turn him against the established order but they did not fully explain his devotion to the republican regime. Nor did the vague statements of those who insisted upon his “powerful ambition. . . and unusual energy of will” actually account for his revolutionary connections. Those who knew him maintained that “generous ardor”, high-minded idealism and well meaning, though sometimes fanatical, enthusiasm rather than selfishness and jealousy, motivated his activities during this period.
Soon, David turned his critical sights on 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. The Royal Academy was chock full of royalists, and David’s attempt to reform it did not go over well with the members. However, the deck was stacked against this symbol of the old regime, and the National Assembly ordered it to make changes to conform to the new constitution.
David then began work on something that would later hound him: propaganda for the new republic. David’s painting of Brutus was shown during the play Brutus, by the famous Frenchman, Voltaire. The people responded in an uproar of approval. On June 20, 1790, the anniversary of the first act of defiance against the King, the oath of the tennis court was celebrated. David was there wanting to commemorate the event in a painting, the Jacobins, revolutionaries that had taken to meeting in the Jacobin Monastery, decided that they would choose the painter whose “genius anticipated the revolution”. David accepted, and began work on a mammoth canvas. The picture was never fully completed, because of its immense size (35ft. by 36ft.) and because people that needed to sit for it disappeared in the Reign of Terror, but several finished drawings exist and parts of the original canvas also exist showing nude figures with fully painted heads.
When Voltaire died in 1778, the church denied him a church burial, and his body was interred near a monastery. A year later, Voltaire’s old friends began a campaign to have his body buried in the Pantheon, as church property had been confiscated by the French Government. In 1791 David was appointed to head the organizing committee for the ceremony, a parade through the streets of Paris to the Pantheon. Despite rain, and opposition from conservatives based on the amount of money that was being spent, the procession went ahead. Up to 100,000 people watched the “Father of the Revolution” be carried to his resting place. This was the first of many large festivals organized by David for the republic. He went on to organize festivals for martyrs that died fighting royalists. These funerals echoed the religious festivals of the pagan Greeks and Romans and are seen by many as Saturnalian.
David incorporated many revolutionary symbols into these theatrical performances and orchestrated ceremonial rituals; in effect radicalizing the applied arts, themselves. The most popular symbol David was responsible for as propaganda minister, was drawn from classical Greek images; changing and transforming them with contemporary politics. In an elaborate festival held on the anniversary of the revolt that brought the monarchy to its knees, David’s Hercules figure was revealed in a procession following the lady Liberty (Marianne). Liberty, the symbol of Enlightenment ideals was here being overturned by the Hercules symbol; that of strength and passion for the protection of the Republic against disunity and factionalism. In his speech during the procession, David “explicitly emphasized the opposition between people and monarchy; Hercules was chosen, after all, to make this opposition more evident”. It was the ideals that David linked to his Hercules that single-handedly transformed the figure from a sign of the old regime into a powerful new symbol of revolution. “David turned him into the representation of a collective, popular power. He took one of the favorite signs of monarchy and reproduced, elevated, and monumentalized it into the sign of its opposite.” Hercules, the image, became to the revolutionaries, something to rally around.
In 1791, the King attempted to flee the country and was within 30 miles (48 km) of the Swiss border when he had a hunger attack that led to his arrest and eventual execution. Louis XVI had made secret requests to Emperor Joseph II of Austria, Marie-Antoinette’s brother, to restore him to his throne. This was granted and Austria threatened France if the royal couple were hurt. In reaction, the people arrested the King. This lead to an Invasion after the trials and execution of Louis and Marie-Antoinette. The Bourbon monarchy was destroyed by the French people in 1792-it would be restored after Napoleon, then destroyed again with the Restoration of the House of Bonaparte. When the new National Convention held its first meeting, David was sitting with his friends Jean-Paul Marat and Robespierre. In the Convention, David soon earned a nickname “ferocious terrorist”. Soon, Robespierre’s agents discovered a secret vault of the king’s proving he was trying to overthrow the government, and demanded his execution. The National Convention held the trial of Louis XVI and David voted for the death of the King, which caused his wife, a royalist, to divorce him.
When Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 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 the death of the King. David was called upon to organize a funeral, and he painted Le Peletier Assassinated. In it the assassin’s sword was seen hanging by a single strand of horsehair above Le Peletier’s body, a concept inspired by the proverbial ancient tale of the sword of Damocles, which illustrated the insecurity of power and position. This underscored the courage displayed by Le Peletier and his companions in routing an oppressive king. The sword pierces a piece of paper on which is written ‘I vote the death of the tyrant’, and as a tribute at the bottom right of the picture David placed the inscription ‘David to Le Peletier. January 20, 1793’. The painting was later destroyed by Le Peletier’s royalist daughter, and is known only by a drawing, an engraving, and contemporary accounts. Nevertheless, this work was important in David’s career, because it was the first completed painting of the French Revolution, made in less than three months, and a work through which he initiated the regeneration process that would continue with The Death of Marat, David’s masterpiece.
On the 13th of July 1793, David’s friend Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday with a knife she had hidden in her clothing. She gained entrance to Marat’s house on the pretense of presenting him a list of people who should be executed as enemies of France. Marat thanked her and said that they would be guillotined next week upon which Corday immediately fatally stabbed him. She was guillotined shortly thereafter. Corday was of an opposing political party, whose name can be seen in the note Marat holds in David’s subsequent painting, The Death of Marat. Marat, a member of the National Assembly and a journalist, had a skin disease that caused him to itch horribly. The only relief he could get was in his bath over which he improvised a desk to write his list of suspect counter-revolutionaries who were to be quickly tried and, if convicted, guillotined. David once again organized a spectacular funeral, and Marat was buried in the Pantheon. Because Marat died in the bathtub, writing, David wanted to have his body submerged in the bathtub during the funeral procession. This did not play out because the body had begun to putrefy. Instead, Marat’s body was periodically sprinkled with water as the people came to see his corpse, complete with gaping wound. The Death of Marat, perhaps David’s most famous painting, has been called the Pieta of the revolution. Upon presenting the painting to the convention, he said “Citizens, the people were again calling for their friend; their desolate voice was heard: David, take up your brushes.., avenge Marat… I heard the voice of the people. I obeyed.” David had to work quickly, but the result was a simple and powerful image.
The Death of Marat, 1793, became the leading image of the Terror and immortalized both Marat, and David in the world of the revolution. This piece stands today as “a moving testimony to what can be achieved when an artist’s political convictions are directly manifested in his work”. A political martyr was instantly created as David portrayed Marat with all the marks of the real murder, in a fashion which greatly resembles that of Christ or his disciples. The subject although realistically depicted remains lifeless in a rather supernatural composition. With the surrogate tombstone placed in front of him and the almost holy light cast upon the whole scene; alluding to an out of this world existence. “Atheists though they were, David and Marat, like so many other fervent social reformers of the modern world, seem to have created a new kind of religion.” At the very center of these beliefs, there stood the republic.
After executing the King, war broke out between the new Republic and virtually every major power in Europe. David, as a member of the Committee of Public Safety, which was headed by Robespierre, contributed directly to the reign of Terror. The committee was severe. Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine; an event recorded in a famous sketch by David. Portable guillotines killed failed generals, aristocrats, priests and perceived enemies. David organized his last festival: the festival of the Supreme Being. Robespierre had realized what a tremendous propaganda tool these festivals were, and he decided to create a new religion, mixing moral ideas with the republic, based on the ideas of Rousseau, with Robespierre as the new high priest. This process had already begun by confiscating church lands and requiring priests to take an oath to the state. The festivals, called fetes, would be the method of indoctrination. On the appointed day, 20 Prairial by the revolutionary calendar, Robespierre spoke, descended steps, and with a torch presented to him by David, incinerated a cardboard image symbolizing atheism, revealing an image of wisdom underneath. The festival hastened the “Incorruptible’s” downfall. Later, some see David’s methods as being taken up by Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler. These massive propaganda events brought the people together.
Soon, the war began to go well; French troops marched across the southern half of the Netherlands (which would later become Belgium), and the emergency that had placed the Committee of Public Safety in control was no more. Then plotters seized Robespierre at the National Convention and he was later guillotined, in effect ending the reign of terror. As Robespierre was arrested, David yelled to his friend “if you drink hemlock, I shall drink it with you.” After this, he supposedly fell ill, and did not attend the evening session because of “stomach pain”, which saved him from being guillotined along with Robespierre. David was arrested and placed in prison. There he painted his own portrait, showing him much younger than he actually was, as well as that of his jailer.
After David’s wife visited him in jail, he conceived the idea of telling the story of the Sabine Women. The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running between the Combatants, also called The Intervention of the Sabine Women is said to have been painted to honor his wife, with the theme being love prevailing over conflict. The painting was also seen as a plea for the people to reunite after the bloodshed of the revolution.
This work also brought him to the attention of Napoleon. The story for the painting is as follows: “The Romans have abducted the daughters of their neighbors, the Sabines. To avenge this abduction, the Sabines attacked Rome, although not immediately-since Hersilia, the daughter of Tatius, the leader of the Sabines, had been married to Romulus, the Roman leader, and then had two children by him in the interim. Here we see Hersilia between her father and husband as she adjures the warriors on both sides not to take wives away from their husbands or mothers away from their children. The other Sabine Women join in her exhortations.” During this time, the martyrs of the revolution were taken from the Pantheon and buried in common ground, and revolutionary statues were destroyed. When he was finally released to the country, France had changed. His wife managed to get David released from prison, and he wrote letters to his former wife, and told her he never ceased loving her. He remarried her in 1796. Finally, wholly restored to his position, he retreated to his studio, took pupils and retired from politics.
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 Josephe de Tascher de Beauharnais would later be known to the world as Josephine 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, 2 December 1804.
David had been an admirer of Napoleon from their first meeting, struck by the then-General Bonaparte’s classical features. Requesting a sitting from the busy and impatient general, David was able to sketch Napoleon in 1797. David recorded the conqueror of Italy’s face, but the full composition of General Bonaparte holding the peace treaty with Austria remains unfinished. 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’etat in 1799, as First Consul he commissioned David to commemorate his daring crossing of the Alps. The crossing of the St. Bernard Pass had allowed the French to surprise the Austrian army and win victory at the Battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800. Although Napoleon had crossed the Alps on a mule, he requested that he be portrayed “calm upon a fiery steed”. David complied with Napoleon Crossing the Saint-Bernard. 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 (the only time David obtained a sitting from Napoleon had been in 1797). David did manage to get a private sitting with the Empress Josephine and Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, through the intervention of erstwhile art patron, Marshal Joachim Murat, the Emperor’s brother-in-law. For his background, David had the choir of Notre Dame act as his fill-in characters. The Pope came to sit for the painting, and actually blessed David. Napoleon came to see the painter, stared at the canvas for an hour and said “David, I salute you”. David had to redo several parts of the painting because of Napoleon’s various whims, and for this painting, David received only 24,000 Francs.
On the Bourbons returning to power, David figured in the list of proscribed former revolutionaries and Bonapartists – for having voted execution for the deposed King Louis XVI; and for participating in the death of Louis XVII. Mistreated and starved, the imprisoned Louis XVII was forced to confess to incest with his mother, Queen Marie-Antoinette, (untrue; separated early, son and mother were disallowed communication, nevertheless, the allegation helped earn her the guillotine). 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 like Francois-Joseph Navez and Ignace Brice, painted Cupid and Psyche and quietly lived the remainder of his life with his wife (to whom he had remarried). In that time, he painted smaller-scale mythological scenes, and portraits of citizens of Brussels and Napoleonic emigres, such as the Baron Gerard.
His last, great work, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces, he began in 1822 and completed the year before his death. In December 1823, he wrote: “This is the last picture I want to paint, but I want to surpass myself in it. I will put the date of my seventy-five years on it and afterwards I will never again pick up my brush.” The finished painting – evoking painted porcelain because of its limpid coloration – was exhibited first in Brussels, then in Paris – where his former students flocked to view it. The exhibition was profitable – 13,000 francs, after deducting operating costs, thus, more than 10,000 people visited and viewed the painting.
When David was leaving a theatre, a carriage struck him, and he later died, on the 29th of December of 1825. At his death, some portraits were auctioned in Paris, they sold for little; the famous Death of Marat was exhibited in a secluded room, to avoid outraging public sensibilities. Disallowed return to France for burial, for having been a regicide of King Louis XVI, the body of the painter Jacques-Louis David was buried at Evere Cemetery, Brussels, while his heart was buried at Pere Lachaise, Paris.