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"the father of the whole modern school." -Delacroix 

"The artist must be a philosopher." -David

"the Robespierre of the brush."

18th or 19th Century Artist Booklet 


Jacques-Louis David

By: Marcus Jackson 

Art History Honors

     Hello, my name is Marcus Jackson. This is my 18th or 19th Century Artist Booklet project. I chose Jacques-Louis David as my artist because I really like his Neoclassical art style. Through this class, I have learned that I favor art that is straightforward, looks realistic and rational, seeks perfection, and contains allusions to historical events and people. I also like art that conveys strength, power, honor, greatness, and leadership. David’s works do all of these things and more. There is just something special about his paintings that I find very appealing. It could be the revolutionary spirit and character in several of them. 

     Jacques-Louis David was born on August 30, 1748 in Paris, France. Paris would be the city he lived in and returned to for most of his life. After his father died in a duel when he was nine years old, David’s mother abandoned him, and he was raised by his two uncles. His uncles sent him to a man named François Boucher, a family friend, to study art since young David had shown interest. However, Boucher was a Rococo artist, and Rococo was going out of style at the time in favor of Neoclassicism, so Boucher decided to send David to Joseph-Marie Vien to continue his studying. Vien had a more classical style and liked historical paintings, especially those from Ancient Greece and Rome. David’s artworks would be influenced by Vien as he adopted a classical style with several of his paintings featured classical, historical scenes from Greece and Rome and from mythology. 

     At the age of 18, he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Then, David’s life took a dark turn as he attempted to starve himself to death because of several losses in official art competitions and years of little if any emotional support. Fortunately, in 1774, he earned a government scholarship called the Prix de Rome, allowing him to take a trip to Italy and securing him some profitable commissions in France in his future career. “Antiochus and Stratonice,” the painting he used to win the contest, contains hints of Rococo art with the influence of Boucher. Taking Vien with him to Italy, David’s artistic style was further influenced by the Bolognese school, Nicolas Poussin, Caravaggio, Anton Raphael Mengs, and Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He returned to France in 1780, and in 1782, he married Marguerite Pécoul who came from a wealthy family. David rose in prominence soon after, being elected to the Acadámie Royale in 1784. His exhibition of “Oath of the Horatii” in 1785 caused quite a stir and was seen as the manifesto for the cultural revival of Neoclassicism.

David's Life

     When the French Revolution began on July 14, 1789, his works took on a more political significance. His influence reached into more aspects of French culture as furniture, hairstyles, and clothing in France began to reflect more of Ancient Rome. At the beginning of the revolution, David was a member of the Jacobins, an extremist group led by Maximilien Robespierre. As an elected member of the National Convention in 1792, he voted in favor of killing Louis XVI. He joined the art commission in 1793 and began to make serious changes to the art scene in France, calling for art to be more moralistic and to follow the “torch of reason.” He banned the Académie Royale with its focus of training artists to meet old regime standards. David also painted several pieces of propaganda for the revolution such as “The Death of Marat.” After the execution by guillotine of Robespierre in 1794, David would be imprisoned twice. After gaining amnesty in 1795, David continue to promote the Neoclassical style, painting “The Intervention of the Sabine Women” in 1799. It caught the eye of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte who admired the artistic style and saw some potential in David, turning David into an unofficial government painter for the Consulate and court painter for the Empire. 

     Throughout Napoleon's reign over France, David painted several works that conveyed the greatness and importance of him. When Napoleon was overthrown in 1815, David was exiled to Brussels, Belgium for his part in the execution of King Louis XVI. Losing his energy and passion for painting, David created few works in the later part of his life. David was involved in an accident involving a carriage ten years into his exile, causing injuries he would never recover from. He died on December, 29, 1825 in Brussels. 

David's Style

     Jacques-Louis David’s primary art style was Neoclassicism. Neoclassicism was a direct reaction to the playfulness of Rococo art, seeking a revival of Greek and Roman art and values. It seeked to imitate the perfection, order, and rationale of classical art. The themes of morality, heroism, and patriotism were frequently used. The style consisted of classical forms and often featured classical subjects shown in scenes where their courage, nationalism, and sacrifice could be conveyed for emotional appeals. 

     David’s paintings definitely represent the Neoclassical style. Several of his works feature scenes and stories ripped right from Ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology. Some of his works show people sacrificing themselves for their beliefs and causes rather than submit and change them. His paintings of Napoleon showcase his love of country and the glory of France. He often uses classical, mythological, and contemporary heroes as subjects, showing their courage and strength. His paintings of historical scenes also contain some allusions to revolutionary France with the theme of moralism, urging people to commit to the struggle to the end. 

David- "The Tennis Court Oath" (1791)

     David was inspired and influenced by François Boucher, Joseph-Marie Vien, Caravaggio, Anton Raphael Mengs, Nicolas Poussin, and Johann Joachim Winckelmann. David inspired and influenced artists such as Francois Gérard, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Antoine-Jean Gros, and François-Joseph Navez. Neoclassicism is similar to later style of  Impressionism in that both sometimes focused on contemporary scenes as David did in his “The Death of Marat” and “The Coronation of Napoleon.”

Antoine Jean Gros- Portrait of François Gérard (1790)

Title: "The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis" 

Year: 1818

Place of Exhibition: The J. Paul Getty Museum  

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Title: “The Anger of Achilles”

Year: 1819

Place of Exhibition: Kimbell Art Museum  

Medium: Oil on canvas

Title: “Emperor Napoleon I” 

Year: 1807

Place of Exhibition: Harvard Art Museums 

Medium: Oil on panel 

Title: “Oath of the Horatii”

Year: 1786

Place of Exhibition: The Toledo Museum of Art 

Medium: Oil on canvas

Title: “Portrait of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and his wife” 

Year: 1788 

Place of Exhibition: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medium: Oil on canvas

Title: “The Death of Marat” 

Year: 1793

Place of Exhibition: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium 

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Title: “The Coronation of Napoleon”

Year: 1808-1822

Place of Exhibition: Palace of Versailles 

Medium: Oil on canvas

Title: General Étienne-Maurice Gérard, Marshal of France

Year: 1816

Place of Exhibition: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Title: "Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint Bernard Pass"

Year: 19th Century

Place of Exhibition: Palace of Versailles 

Medium: Oil on canvas

       I was shocked to learn that David painted this famous painting of Napoleon. I love the historical significance of this painting and how it portrays Napoleon Bonaparte as a general leading his troops. Since David is a painter from the Neoclassicism movement, this painting contains some the characteristics of that kind of art.  This work exudes a sense of heroism and patriotism with an emphasis on the glory of France and Napoleon. Napoleon is showcased with a lot of gravitas and power. It makes sense that this man would become popular enough to grab power in a coup and become the emperor of the mightiest nation on continental Europe at the time. I feel moved enough to follow him as he looks and seems like an important, great, and virtuous man. Then, Napoleon and his soldiers clearly have love for their country and the courage to go into battle and possibly die which is typical in Neoclassical art. Also, the figures have clarity and proportion, and the composition is rational. In this painting, in the foreground, you can see Napoleon in his military officer uniform, riding his white horse that is standing its hind legs which conveys movement. At first glance, the red of the cloak or something that Napoleon is wearing quickly catches the eye of the viewer. As a person whose favorite color is red, that is my favorite part of the painting, especially with how it flows in the wind in a way. Also, you can see that Napoleon’s horse is standing and moving on some rock (Grand Saint Bernard Pass) that elevates as you look further left, depicting Napoleon racing up the mountain to engage the enemy. In the background, you can further see the mountain ranges of the Grand Saint Bernard Pass. Also, you can see the troops under Napoleon’s command who are marching up the mountain to meet the enemy in combat. They are drawn smaller and in proportion to Napoleon which is characteristic of Neoclassicism. When I look at the painting, I can not help but hear “Vive la France!” over and over again in my head.  

"Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint Bernard Pass"

Title: “The Death of Socrates” 

Year: 1787 

Place of Exposition: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medium: Oil on canvas

     I love “The Death of Socrates” also for its historical allusion. It references the time when Socrates was coerced into drinking hemlock for trying to teach the youth of Athens to question authority and everything (Socratic method), becoming a martyr. It is another example of Neoclassical art. What is a better way to revive the classics of Greek and Roman art than painting a scene from that time period with classical subjects? Socrates is shown willingly reaching for the poison with the courage to sacrifice himself for his values and beliefs rather than renouncing them. He does so defiantly and against the wishes of his followers and students who look on with horror and despair. The man handing Socrates the poison moves me emotionally as he looks away with disgrace and contempt for himself for what he is doing. I wonder if he is supposed to be Plato, though the man in white in front of the bed could also be him. There is proportion with the forms of the figures in the background of the dungeon being smaller as they walk up the stairs. In my opinion, the color white dominates the painting as it really stands out from the rest of the scene in the clothing of Socrates and the man in front of the bed, giving me more credence that the second man is Plato who must now carry on Socrates’ legacy. I like the use of chiaroscuro with shadows and a light that shines on Socrates. Socrates kind of points toward the light, knowing that he is going to heaven. This painting reminds me of “Death of Marat” as it also features a man dying for what he believes in. David probably meant for this painting to serve a contemporary purpose of inspiring the French revolutionaries to be willing to die for their cause.

"Death of Socrates"