Jacques Louis David

Great and complex French painter.

He oscillated between baroque Rubenisme and classicizing Poussisme, and may be said to have at last reconciled these tendencies in French art.

We can think of him as the last major 18th-century painter or as the originator of 19th-century art.

His working life fell into quite distinct phases: ancient regime artist making a career in the Royal Academy and with official commissions from the crown; ardent revolutionary and republican supremo of the arts; hero-worshipper of, and court artist to, Napoleon; exile and archaicizing aesthete. Throughout – and this is sometimes forgotten with attention focused, as David himself wished, on the ‘higher’ genre of history painting he remained a brilliant portraitist. In this field, David’s continuing allegiance to colorism may be perceived even in his sparest and most classical compositions.

David’s widowed mother took the drawing-mad boy to her relation Boucher, who recommended Vien as a teacher.

From 1769 to 1774, David competed for prices at the Academy, and it is instructive to look at these early works: the Combat of Man anil Minerva, which resembles Boucher at his most vigorous; the Death of Seneca, whose Boucher-like passages arc modified with Baroque drama in the handling of light and dark; Antiochus and Stratonice, which finally won him first prize and whose Baroque handling is tempered with Le Sueur-like classicism of composition.

In 1775, Vien was appointed Director of the French Academy in Rome and took David there with him, 1775-80. Here, it has rightly been said, David sought a style: drawing constantly from the antique, studying anatomy, but also studying Ribera, Caravaggio, Veronese and others. He was influenced also by Gavin Hamilton. All these influences are apparent, in various admixtures, in the works he exhibited after his return at the Salon of 1781, and which included a Rubensian equestrian portrait, the Count Potocki in Warsaw, and an eclectic altarpiece, St Roch interceding with the Virgin, in which Caravaggio, Poussin, Guercino and even Lebrun are recalled in various details.

The most prophetic of his famous later works, however, was the Belisarius, deeply serious, emotionally compelling, warm in coloring, but returning to the readable clarity of Poussin and to his recreation of the world of antiquity.

Believing that he could not paint a true tribute to Roman virtue in Paris, David returned for a year to work in Rome, where he finished the painting, and where his studio was stormed with admirers.

Exhibited in Paris in 1785, the Horatti passed for ‘the most beautiful picture of the century’, the history painting which at last restored the French school to its lyth-century grandeur. A very model of Poussinesque rigor, the painting is also disturbingly realistic. Its success was followed up by that of Socrates Drinking the Hemlock which sealed David’s reputation as head of a new school of art spreading far beyond the borders of France.

He was, however, still far from consistent in style or temper: the Death of Ugolino is already romantic both in its subject and ‘gothick’ style (the theme had previously been treated by Reynolds), and Para and Helen, painted for an aristocratic private collector, comes close to the closet Rococo neo-classicism of Vien.

The famous Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, however, resembles the Horatii in its tragic furor, its recreation of ancient patriotic virtue at the cost of personal happiness. A commission from the crown, whose subject had been modified by David, it was exhibited six weeks after the storming of the Bastille and became closely identified with the Republican cause.

David’s political activism, however, was first realized within the sphere of the Academy, when he led younger artists in demanding an exhibition for the works of his talented pupil, Jean-Germain Drouais, who had died in Rome before receiving academic recognition. This demand for equality in accord with the Declaration of the Rights of Man led finally to the setting up of the more egalitarian Commune des Arts and, in 1793 at the urging of David, to the abolition of the Academy, so closely identified with the monarchy.

David’s role as artistic dictator and impresario of the pageantry and rites of the Revolution is beyond the scope of this entry. As a painter, he was charged in 1790 with recording the political opening act of the Revolution, the Tennis Court Oath of 1780. The project was never completed, but the preliminary sketches, combining 100 protagonists in a composition of tremendous breadth, demonstrate (yet again) David’s ability to combine exact observation with, monumentality.

Of three paintings of ‘martyrs’ of the Revolution only one has achieved fame: Marat assassine, at once portrait and icon, borrowing the pose of a Christ in the Field – which itself goes hack to ancient pagan prototypes -and combining generalized space with naturalism of detail. The Death of Lepeletier, destroyed, is only known through an engraving; the Death of Bara was never finished.

After the execution of Robespierre, whom he had supported, and his own imprisonment during the Directory (View of the Luxembourg, 1794, his only landscape, painted while in prison), David turned once again to mainly artistic problems, notably to purifying his work further in the direction of greater refinement and abstraction ‘in the Greek style’. The resulting painting, emulating Hellenistic statues such as the Apollo Belvedere looted from Italy by Napoleon, can be called neoclassical in its aesthetecism (Rape of the Sabines, 1799), although it is surpassed in frigid archaicism by a similarly motivated later canvas (Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1800-14).

Under Napoleon, however, David reained both his extra-artistic motivation and his social and artistic position. An oilsketch resulting from a short sitting granted by the victorious Bonaparte was worked up into the heroic Napoleon crossing the Alps, ‘calm on a fiery steed’.

Napoleon Crowning Josephine or Le Sacre (1805-8) takes as its point of departure a scene from Rubens’s Marie de Medici cycle. Napoleon Distributing the Eagles controls its crowded scene with similar recall from earlier art, including Raphaers Stanze.

After 1816, David remained in exile in Brussels, working for private patrons. Although a lew late portraits continue to demonstrate his powers, the subject paintings from this period return to the erotic neo-classicism of his Paris and Helen of 1788 (e.g. Cupid and Psyche, 1817).

David was the generous teacher of many pupils, among them the leading French painters of the first half of the 19th century.

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