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Jacques-Louis David

French Painter

Jacques-Louis David Photo
Movement: Neoclassicism

Born: August 30, 1748 - Paris, France

Died: December 29, 1825 - Brussels, Belgium

"To achieve their goal, masterpieces must charm but also penetrate the soul and make a deep impression on the mind that is similar to reality...Therefore the artist must have studied all the motives of mankind and he must know nature thoroughly. In short he must be a philosopher."

Jacques Louis David Signature

Summary of Jacques-Louis David

The quintessential Neoclassical painter, David's monumental canvases were perhaps the final triumph of traditional history painting. Adopting the fashionable Greco-Roman style, David blended these antique subjects with Enlightenment philosophy to create moral exemplars. His linear forms dramatically illustrated narratives that often mirrored contemporary politics. As the premier painter of his day, David served the monarchy of Louis XVI, the post-revolutionary government, and the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, despite the radical differences in these ruling regimes. He also ran an important studio where his students would later rebel against his example, sowing the seeds of modernism.

Key Ideas

David was the first French artist to unite classical subjects with a linear precision and minimalist composition. Completely rejecting the decorative and painterly effects of the Rococo, his canvases created powerful, didactic works of moral clarity with few distractions or pictorial flourishes. David's paintings answered the demand for art that directly conveyed civic virtues to a wide audience.
Although paintings such as The Oath of the Horatii and Death of Socrates would come to be associated with the Revolution of 1789, David's earliest successes were iconic images of valor and noble deeds, commissioned by royal and aristocratic patrons, who adopted the classical style as the latest trend. A political chameleon, David adapted this Neoclassical style to remain successful throughout the tumultuous climate of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. He secured important commissions from the monarchy, the Revolutionary government, and Napoleon Bonaparte, all of whom used David's classicism to legitimize their claim to authority.
Although he is most often identified with his activities during the French Revolution, during which he served on the National Council and organized propaganda, David was adept politically and adjusted his art to fit the needs of each of his patron. This ability provided an example for working with contemporary subjects and of modifying to fit different political engagements.
The Academy taught drawing; to learn to paint, students would apprentice in the studio of a master. David's studio became the most important training ground for artists of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Although many of his students would eventually rebel against this model and turn towards the burgeoning Romantic movement and its spiritual questioning, his legacy was established through generations of artists who could trace their instruction back to David's studio - his most famous student was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Jacques-Louis David Photo

Born in Paris to a wealthy family, Jacques-Louis David was raised by his mother's two architect brothers and educated at boarding school following the death of his merchant father in a pistol duel when the future artist was only nine years old. David defied his family's hopes that he too would train to be an architect or pursue a career in law or medicine by deciding to become an artist.

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