Jacques-Louis David: The Neoclassical Revolutionary

In 1784, Jacques-Louis David inaugurated the era of Neoclassicism in France. A supporter of the French Revolution and Napoleon, he became one of the most important portrait painters of this pivotal period in French history. 

Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Louvre Museum, Paris. Image in the public domain (detail)
Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Louvre Museum, Paris. Image in the public domain (detail)

At the age of nine, Jacques-Louis David, born in Paris on August 30, 1748, lost his father, who was killed during a sword duel. His mother then called on her brother, François Buron, to help her complete her son's education. After lessons with a tutor, young David entered the College of the Four Nations in the rhetoric class. However, he preferred drawing and desired to become a painter. Having noticed his talent for drawing, his family encouraged a career as an architect, following in the steps of his two uncles.

Jacques-Louis David, self-portrait, 1794, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, self-portrait, 1794, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image

After studying drawing at the Académie de Saint-Luc, David met (through his family) François Boucher, a highly respected Rococo artist and the Premier Peintre du Roi (First Painter of the King). However, Boucher, weakened by illness and aging, introduced David to his friend Joseph-Marie Vien in 1766 for further instruction. Like Boucher, Vien was a follower of the Rococo style, but already incorporated in his works elements of classicism (a trend which was also manifested in the furniture and interior decoration of the time and which is known today as the "Louis XVI style"). 

Joseph-Marie Vien, La Marchande d'Amours, 1763, Château de Fontainebleau. Public domain image
Joseph-Marie Vien, La Marchande d'Amours, 1763, Château de Fontainebleau. Public domain image

Jacques-Louis David dutifully focused on his art and, in 1774, his work Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus' Disease finally won him the Prix de Rome, after three failed attempts. He studied for four years in the residence of the Académie de France in Rome, the Mancini Palace. 

Jacques-Louis David, Erasistratus discovering the cause of Antiochius' disease, 1774, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, Erasistratus discovering the cause of Antiochius' disease, 1774, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris. Public domain image

In Rome, David studied the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. He also met the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, who, like his former teacher Vien, was already a follower of the Neoclassical style. Back in Paris, David became a permanent member of the Academy in 1783 and, with the permission of King Louis XVI, opened a workshop in the Louvre thanks to the dowry of 50,000 pounds that he received upon his marriage to Marguerite Charlotte Pécoul in 1782. His studio became a popular meeting place for art students, and David received many applications from young apprentices who wanted to benefit from his teaching.

Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image

With the financial support of his father-in-law, he left for Rome in 1784 with his wife and one of his pupils, Jean-Germain Drouais, who was competing for the Prix de Rome. In the Italian metropolis David worked on Oath of the Horatii, a work begun in Paris following a commission from the King's Buildings in 1781. With the intention of presenting his painting at the Salon of 1785, David deliberately exaggerates its dimensions, going as far as painting a composition of 4.25 m by 3.30 m. His disobedience to the official instructions of the King's Buildings, which had required a canvas measuring 3.30 m by 3.30 m, instilled in him a reputation as a rebellious and daring artist. Despite a less prominent position at the Salon due to a delay in shipping the work to Paris, Oath of the Horatii was a great success, both with the public and critics, at the Salon of 1785. This work is considered a pioneer of Neoclassical art in France.

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David's wish to be appointed director of the Academy of Rome not having come true, he returned to his hometown, where he exhibited regularly and also enjoyed success as a portrait painter.

Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath (unfinished), 1791, Palace of Versailles. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath (unfinished), 1791, Palace of Versailles. Public domain image

After the storming of the Bastille in 1789, David became a supporter of the Revolution. He started painting The Tennis Court Oath, a work based on the event held June 20, 1789 in the Salle du Jeu de Paume in Versailles. This project was the most ambitious of his career: David is aiming for a composition ten meters wide by seven meters high representing the 630 deputies present at the event, however he never completed the work. In parallel with his activity as a painter, he launched into politics and became the head of the “Commune des arts” in 1790. In 1791, he voted for the execution of Louis XVI, which cost him his marriage: his wife, in disagreement with his political opinions, left him and settled in a convent for a time. 

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Left: Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels. Right: Jacques-Louis David, Marie-Antoinette on the way to the guillotine, 1793, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain images
Left: Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels. Right: Jacques-Louis David, Marie-Antoinette on the way to the guillotine, 1793, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain images

In 1793, David painted two interesting portraits: The Death of Marat, an emblematic and scandalous work in which he gave the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, assassinated in July, the status of martyr of the revolution, and the last portrait of the former Queen Marie-Antoinette, quickly sketched as she passed in front of his window before being executed.

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Jacques-Louis David, Les Sabines, 1799, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, Les Sabines, 1799, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image

After the Revolution and a period spent in prison, Jacques-Louis David resumed his activity as a history painter with Les Sabines (1799), a canvas he exhibited in the former architectural office of the Louvre in 1799 and which, despite a payment imposed by the painter to admire it, attracted a large number of visitors until 1805. In the meantime, a politician whom David admired more than any other ancient hero had just entered the scene: Napoleon Bonaparte. As early as 1800, the emperor commissioned David for a representation of his already legendary crossing of the Alps, which the painter transcribed in Bonaparte crossing the Great Saint Bernard.

Jacques-Louis David, Bonaparte crossing the Grand-Saint-Bernard, 1800, Château de Malmaison. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, Bonaparte crossing the Grand-Saint-Bernard, 1800, Château de Malmaison. Public domain image

At the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor of the French in 1804, David was appointed court painter. The first imperial order was none other than the monumental painting of the coronation of the emperor at Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804, which took almost two years to complete.

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Jacques-Louis David, The coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, The coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image

In addition to his work as a court painter, Jacques-Louis David was still in demand as a portrait painter, painting his iconic likeness of the French socialite Juliette Recamier in 1800.

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Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Madame Récamier, 1800, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Madame Récamier, 1800, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain image

After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, who had previously appointed him commander of the Legion of Honor, Jacques-Louis David was exiled to Brussels, where he continued to teach and work. With Mars disarmed by Venus (1824), he produced his last large painting there.

Jacques-Louis David, Mars disarmed by Venus, 1824, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels. Public domain image
Jacques-Louis David, Mars disarmed by Venus, 1824, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels. Public domain image

On December 29, 1825, he died of injuries after being hit by a carriage leaving a theater. His widow Marguerite Charlotte asked to bury him in Paris, but because of his support of the death of King Louis XVI, the French refused and he was buried in Brussels.

Today, Jacques-Louis David's Neoclassical style can be found in the world's most illustrious museums and his artworks fetch millions on the art market. His current record is held by Portrait of Ramel de Nogaret, which sold in 2008 at Christie's for $7.2 million.

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