Jacques-Louis David (30 August 1748 29 December 1825) was the most prominent and influential painter of his age. He is famous for his brilliant portraits and especially his works in the genre of "history painting" which he single-handedly changed forever. David is also famous and controversial for being the first major artist who declared his art in the service of political causes. His work was defiantly pro-Revolutionary, it was intended to be propaganda for the Republic, and later, the Empire. His prolific output, and the power of his best work is such that his images, more than chronicles or historical accounts, provides the most endearing chronicle of The French Revolution. David was born into a wealthy family and his talent and passion for drawing was noted and nurtured from a very early age. He apprenticed with several major artists but already he began to revolt against the dominant Rococo style. Rococo or often described as "late Baroque" can be described as a sugary-sweet, sentimental approach to painting, where the idea was to glory in curves, filigree and all kinds of joyful forms. The paintings were aimed to provide a feast for the senses and several great art came in this period, such as the paintings of Watteau (whose landscapes inspired the real-life gardens landscaped by aristocrats). Neoclassicism was meant as a revolt against this artificiality. This meant not a return to the grandeur of Rome but a return to the virtues of the Roman Republic, emphasizing stern, stoic committment to patriotism and civic good.
Before the Revolution, David was active in the Royal Academy (located at the Palais du Louvre, soon to be a museum) and was famous for being an Insufferable Genius and highly ambitious man. He painted the portraits of several nobles and salon gatherers (though never the Royal Family). He spent much time in Rome, because, "Only in Rome can I paint Romans". This resulted in his engagement with "history painting". His subjects were scenes from antiquity - The Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates - but painted with a greater attention to the philosophy and spirit of the Ancient World. Philosopher and art critic, Denis Diderot, noted that David's paintings often felt like ancient bas-reliefs come to life. When the Revolution began, David's work was judged by his former aristocratic patrons to be too incendiary and often banned from being exhibited at Salons. The real scandal was the painting, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons. This chronicled Lucius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic and ancestor to the more notorious Marcus Junius Brutus, sternly and grimly sacrificing his traitorous sons for the Nation, a vindication of stern Republican patriotism. The Royal Salon's attempt to ban a display of the painting led to a cry of protest and the painting and David quickly became a Republican symbol.
David became a one-man propaganda division for the Revolution and, later Napoleon. His paintings include, the mammoth never-completed but iconic depiction of the Tennis Court Oath◊, his portraits of Republican martyrs, Louis-Michel Lepelettier and the young Joseph Bara◊. His masterpiece is the single most iconic image of the Revolution, The Death of Marat. David also sat on the National Convention during this period and like the majority of the Jacobins, he voted for the King's execution.
A Jacobin and a close personal friend of Maximilien Robespierre, David was imprisoned after the latter's downfall and his activity on the Committee of General Security(which oversaw executions during the Reign of Terror) made him fall out of favor. He was rescued by the Rise of Napoleon. David was fascinated by the General's Meditteranean appearance (which he likened to Antiquity) and started work on several works that built his legend. Napoleon for his part, was quite willing to overlook the fact that it was David who signed the death warrant of Alexandre de Beauharnais (Josephine's first husband) unintentionally clearing the way for him. Although Napoleon only sat once for a David portrait, David had a skilfull enough grasp of his features to create the most iconic images of his Legend, whether it's Napoleon Crossing the Alps◊, Napoleon in his Study◊ or the Coronation◊. Napoleon, a fellow ex-Jacobin, also remembered David's skill in organizing Republican Pageants, and tasked him with to stage the festivities of the Coronation as well. As a regicide, David was exiled upon the Bourbon Restoration and settled in Brussells where he trained several painters. His work fell out of style but was revived in the middle of the 19th Century, especially for his Revolutionary Output which is regarded as his best work. His iconic images adorn the Louvre Museum and has inspired several major artists in the years to come.
- Art Shift: David self-consciously described his post-Revolutionary style as being more Greek in influence than Roman. By which he meant less classical and sternly Republican and more antiquarian in a general sense. This made him more acceptable politically.
- Artistic License: David's neoclassical portraits tended to be more interpretive than realistic. His portrait of Marat is fairly accurate in broad strokes but is still not an exact portrait of the man (who at time of death, was highly sick and had yellowish skin). Nearly all his portraits of Napoleon (with the exception of the Crossing of Saint Bernard) were done without the Emperor giving him a sitting. Napoleon himself dictated the famous portrait including the famous image of the horse(he had actually crossed the narrow mountains with the more practical mule) to make him look heroic. The above mentioned self-portrait likewise shows him to be far younger than his real age at the time(close to 50).
- Full-Circle Revolution: A radical Jacobin revolutionary who painted controversial edgy portraits of Republican martyrs ends up becoming a collaborator to a dictator and painting safe portraits of the very wealthy. Upon Napoleon's coronation, he was said to have remarked:Jacques-Louis David: "Well, I had always thought for sure that we were not virtuous enough to be republicans."
- Historical-Domain Character: He appears in several works documenting the Revolution. Most notably in the 1985 film Danton which has several scenes showing him in his study. He also appears as a main character in the Graphic Novel/BD The Sky Over the Louvre by Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carriere, which chronicles his Odd Friendship with Robespierre around the time the Palais de Louvre became the Louvre Museum during the Terror.
- Mad Artist: David was quite sane but his activities as a painter and revolutionary are quite tinged with controversy. There's the fact that during the Terror, he tended to sketch people sent to the guillotine on a tumbrel, including people he executed himself such as this famous image of Marie Antoinette◊. He's often seen, along with Sergei Eisenstein, as an example of a great artist whose work is tarnished with controversial support of radical politics and later, glorifying a Dictator and Emperor. During his time, serving the Committee of General Security, he signed the death warrants of at least 400 people.
- The critic David A. Bell writing for the New Republic, noted about The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons:
- Patriotic Fervor: All his revolutionary activities was driven by it. It must be noted that David did not suffer at all before the Revolution. He was a popular, wealthy and highly successful artist, yet he risked everything because of his committment to the Revolution. His vote to execute the King even estranged him from his devout Catholic wife(they reconciled when he was imprisoned during Thermidor). Years later, in his exile, he reflected on his political committment with bitterness:"I am prevented from returning to my atelier, which, alas, I should never have left. I believed that in accepting the most honorable position, but very difficult to fill, that of legislator, that a righteous heart would suffice, but I lacked the second quality, understanding."
- Pietà Plagiarism: His portrait of Marat deliberately echoes the Pieta, especially the angle and composition of Marat's sloping head. One reason the painting is so radical, as noted by art-historian E. H. Gombrich, was its ability to borrow from religious painting, classical sculpture (the bare body and torso and muscles) to sacralize what is after all, a lurid crime scene - making a martyr out of a Revolutionary, a "Friend of the People" rather than a King, Soldier or a Saint. In this image, David exploded neo-classicism to create something truly modern - ideals of Christianity and Antiquity forms an image of secular democracy.
- Propaganda Machine: David served the First Republic as Head Artist. He organized several festivals dedicated to the Republic, including the Funeral Processions of Voltaire to the Pantheon, as well as that of Marat and Joseph Bara. His most controversial participation is the notorious Festival of the Supreme Being, which he collaborated with Robespierre. He also painted portraits of several Republican martyrs - Lepeletier, Marat and Joseph Bara. He later worked as a collaborator of Napoleon, who learned thanks to David of the power of images in spreading propaganda (and hired several of David's students to serve in his entourage during his battles, to chronicle his "greatness").
- Scars Are Forever: David suffered an injury to his left cheek in his youth. It never really healed, generating a cyst which twisted his mouth and impaired his speech.
- Signature Style: His portraiture, somber colours are instantly recognizable though since it became the house style, many later artists tried to rebel against him.