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Jacques-Louis David Artworks

French Painter

Jacques-Louis David Photo
Movement: Neoclassicism

Born: August 30, 1748 - Paris, France

Died: December 29, 1825 - Brussels, Belgium

Artworks by Jacques-Louis David

The below artworks are the most important by Jacques-Louis David - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

The Oath of the Horatii (1784)

The Oath of the Horatii (1784)

The Oath of the Horatii depicts narrative from early Roman history. On the left, three young soldiers reach toward their father, pledging to fight for their homeland. They appear resolute and unified, every muscle in their bodies is actively engaged and forcefully described, as if to confirm their selflessness and bravery. These Roman Horatii brothers were to battle against three Curatii brothers from Alba to settle a territorial dispute between their city-states. They are willing to fight to the death, sacrificing themselves for home and family.

Underscoring their moral integrity, David compares their positive example with weakness. On the right, women and children collapse on each other, overwhelmed by their emotions and fear. Indeed, the women are more conflicted; one, a Curatii, was married to one of the Horatii while a Horatii sister was engaged to another of the Curatii. As they watch this dramatic pledge, they understand that either their husbands or their brothers were going to die and their loyalties are divided. David juxtaposes these two family groups, dividing the canvas not only into male and female roles, but contrasting the heroic and selfless with the fearful and uncertain.

This clarity is also reflected in the severity of the composition and style; while earlier artists had begun to mine Greco-Roman narratives as a fashionable trend in art, no other artist united these stories with David's stylistic minimalism and simplicity. The bare stage-like setting, organized by the sparse arches in the background, provides no distraction from the lesson being taught. Every figure and object in the painting contributes to this central moral.

Indeed, David even invented this scene to most concisely convey the essence of the narrative and its moral implications. In neither the written history, nor the 18th-century stage production of this story, do the sons pledge an oath to their father. David added this element because it allowed him to condense the larger epic into a singular moment, and to create the strongest possible emotional charge.

The enthusiastic reception of this painting at the Salon cemented David's reputation as the leading artist in the new Neoclassical style. Although the work was his first royal commission, and its emphasis on selflessness and patriotism was conceived with the monarchy in mind, its depiction of fraternity and heroic sacrifice would soon resonate with the French Revolution of 1789.

The Death of Socrates (1787)

The Death of Socrates (1787)

Another narrative of stoic self-sacrifice and dignity, David presented the suicide of Socrates as an admirable and noble act. Set in the bare scene of his prison cell, the muscular body of the aged philosopher is meant to convey his moral and intellectual fitness. He sits upright, preparing to swallow the bowl of poisonous hemlock without any hesitation or uncertainty; he would rather die than renounce his teachings. His arm is raised in an oratory gesture, lecturing until his last moment, while his students demonstrate a range of emotional responses to his execution.

David's painting draws from Plato's account of the event, linking this painting with a classical source; yet, as in The Oath of the Horatii, David takes artistic license to manipulate the scene for greater dramatic effect. He eliminates some of the figures mentioned in Plato's account and idealizes the aged figure of Socrates, making his message of heroic logic and intellectualism clear to the viewer.

As tensions rose in pre-revolutionary France, David's depiction of resistance against an unjust authority quickly became popular. In a letter to the famous British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, the artist John Boydell claimed it to be "the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanza of Raphael."

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The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789)

The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789)

In the dark shadows that fall across the lower left corner, sits a man on a bench; looking out at the viewer, his facial expression is difficult to decipher. Separated from the rest of the composition by this darkness, as well as a Doric column and silhouetted statue, the viewer's eye moves from him to the brightly lit, dramatically posed woman to the right. Her two children cling to her, as she reaches out an arm, a movement that is balanced by a figure in blue who has collapsed. Following this outstretched arm, the viewer finally arrives at the titular subject - the light falls upon a corpse being borne on a stretcher. The circuit connecting these three main actors: Brutus, his wife, and his dead son, is a tight circle, creating through light and gesture.

David uses these two fundamental components to succinctly retell a story from Roman history; here, Brutus, a father, has sentenced to death his two sons because of their treasonous actions. His patriotism was greater than even his love for his family, although his stoic grief reveals the dear cost of this conviction.

This painting, with its messaging about patriotism, loyalty, and sacrifice, was due to be exhibited at the Salon in the earliest days of the Revolution. The royal authorities, still in control of the exhibition, examined each work to ensure that it would not contribute to the political instability and further jeopardize the stability of the monarchy. One of David's paintings, a portrait of a known Jacobist, was refused, as was this charged depiction of Brutus. When this was announced, there was a public outcry; the painting was ultimately displayed under the protection of David's students. The painting inspired a passionate following and permeated popular culture; this work was even re-enacted with live actors from National Theatre following a November 1790 performance of Voltaire's Brutus.

Oath of the Tennis Court (1791)

Oath of the Tennis Court (1791)

To mark the first anniversary of the Tennis Court oath, a moment of solidarity that sparked the revolution, David began an ambitious project. The monumental scale of this planned painting required nearly life-size portraits of the main actors. In this preparatory drawing, he included depictions of key leading figures, including Jean-Sylvestre Bailly and Maximilien Robespierre.

History painting had traditionally been the highest genre of painting, but was limited to the distant past. This project was innovative in its focus on contemporary history. When the drawing was exhibited, however, it was met with mixed reviews. While one supporter called David "the King of the learned brush," some of the Revolution's opponents found it offensive, bordering on treason for its celebration of the defiant insurrectionists; France was, at the time of this preparatory work, still operating under the limited powers of Louis XVI.

Its contemporaneity was its downfall: by the time David was prepared to begin the paintings, the volatile political situation had shifted. With the dawn of the Reign of Terror, many of the principals featured in the work were considered enemies of the state and would soon be executed. The Tennis Court oath was no longer a celebrated moment of Revolutionary history and plans for its commemoration were forgotten. Only partial sketches remain for a monumental, but aborted, commemoration of this first victory of the people.

The Death of Marat (1793)

The Death of Marat (1793)

Once more turning to contemporary politics, David was commissioned to create a memorial to Jean-Paul Marat following his 1793 assassination by Charlotte Corday. A French politician, physician, journalist, and a leader of the radical Montagnard faction, Marat had been murdered while sitting in a medicinal bath that alleviated the symptoms of a painful skin condition. David's painting combines such factual information (including a legible version of Corday's deceptive plea, calculated to gain an audience with Marat) along with highly symbolic elements of propaganda to create an image that elevates Marat to martyrdom. Sometimes referred to as Marat Breathing his Last, we see the humble workspace of a tireless public servant: only his bath and a simple box that serves as his writing desk.

This sparse composition forces the viewer to contemplate the body of Marat, which appears peacefully splayed. The knife wound, visible on his chest, is barely indicated and only glimpses of the bloody bathwater hint at the preceding violence. Although the Revolutionary government had outlawed religion, David created a visual analogy between Marat and images of the dead Christ. The graceful sweep of Marat's arm mirrors Michelangelo's Pieta and other scenes of the Deposition from the Cross; the white turban wrapped around Marat's head serves as a proxy for a halo.

David's clear sympathies for Marat and his transformation of the politician into a timeless martyr made this painting became highly problematic after the fall of the Jacobin government; it was returned to David in 1795 and remained in his possession until his death. Hidden from view, it was only rediscovered in the mid-19th century, when it was celebrated by the poet Charles Baudelaire.

In the 20th century, David's iconic memorial to Marat was a touchstone for artists engaged with politics. Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso both did versions of the painting, as did the Chinese painter Yue Minjun. The socially conscious Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, used David's painting as inspiration for one of his Pictures of Garbage series; in these works, he traveled to the world's largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho (located outside of Rio de Janeiro) to work with the catadores, people who picked through garbage, transforming the detritus to recreate great masterpieces, including David's painting.

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The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799)

The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799)

Painted during the waning years of the Revolution, David's The Intervention of the Sabine Women suggests the nation's fatigue and a growing desire for peace. Indeed, while the subject is taken from Roman history, it represents a different type of narrative, highlighting the role of the Sabine women in bringing peace between their countrymen and the Romans. Coming after years of conflict, following the Roman abduction of these women, it represents a complicated scene with multiple loyalties in play. The analogies to the post-Revolutionary government are clear.

From a technical perspective, this work features a much more complex narrative. The focus rests on the bare-chested woman in white, but a number of emotional vignettes compete for the viewer's attention. This represents a change from David's earlier, more singular plots, and demands a new approach to looking at the painting in stages. In the original exhibition of the piece, David broke with tradition by placing a mirror on the wall opposite the painting. In this modern installation, the traditional idea of viewer engagement was radically shifted. Onlookers could turn away from the work and see it reflected in the mirror, which would enhance the experience by allowing the viewers to feel that they were part of the action itself. This participatory quality would become a central concern for artists of the 20th century.

In 1972, the Italian artist Luigi Ontani, based a performance on this painting. After David (The Rape of the Sabines) included Ontani as one of the nude Roman soldiers, holding a reproduction of the painting. He intended the work to encourage viewers to consider the behaviors of past civilizations.

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (1800)

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (1800)

An image of absolute control, confidence, and optimism, Bonaparte Crossing the St Bernard Pass is a large-scale equestrian portrait of the ruler. Shown heroically conquering this inhospitable terrain, Napoleon secures his place in history alongside two other generals who found victory in this same difficult military approach; their names are inscribed on the rocks in the lower left corner: Hannibal, and Charlemagne.

Napoleon had come to power through a military coup in 1799, declaring himself First Consul and seizing command. This painting represents this bold general and his ability to maintain control in the face of chaos and danger. Although the horse rears up on the edge of a rocky precipice, Napoleon calmly holds the reins in one hand while gesturing forward with his other arm. The movement of the horse is echoed in the flowing golden yellow cape of Bonaparte. Everything about the leader suggests a forward trajectory, highlighting his ability to lead France above the turmoil of the Revolutionary period. While David had supported the Revolution, he committed himself to the new French leader Bonaparte (who had restored David's reputation and financial success) and painted many portraits of the general that helped to legitimize his claim to authority.

This work was commissioned by King Charles IV of Spain, who admired the leader and was relieved at the restoration of order to neighboring France. The actual moment depicted was entirely fictitious: although Napoleon led his troops over the Alps, he rode a mule through a narrow mountain trail (as the soldiers in the distance are shown). Indeed, Napoleon even refused David's request to sit for the portrait, stating, "No one knows if portraits of great men are likenesses: it suffices that genius lives." Instead, David used models wearing Napoleon's clothes to pose for the hero. The painting originally was displayed in the Spanish royal palace, but Napoleon quickly ordered three copies for himself. David was subsequently named First Painter to Napoleon in 1801 and he, and his students, would provide official portraits and propaganda throughout the emperor's reign.

The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress (1805-07)

The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress (1805-07)

The December 2, 1804 ceremony that named Napoleon Bonaparte Emperor of France was an elaborately choreographed affair. Wanting to recreate Charlemagne's coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, the presence of the Pope was requested. Famously, at the last moment, Napoleon took the crown from Pius VII hands and crowned himself; but this audacious act was not the subject of David's monumental painting, The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress. Instead, David chose the less controversial moment when Napoleon crowned his wife, Josephine, in front of a crowd of dignitaries in Notre Dame Cathedral. The epic scale of this painting (at nearly 30 foot long, the majority of the portraits were life-size) spoke to Napoleon's desire to legitimize his reign through displays of grandiose power.

David characteristically enhanced the actual event to greater dramatic effect. For example, Napoleon's mother appears as a central figure at the event, seated in one of the main boxes, although she was not actually present at the coronation. Details of the opulence and magnificence of the event, however, were carefully recorded to create a document attesting to Napoleon's political power. Napoleon does seem to upstage the Pope here, too, as the center of attention and the most active figure in the composition. With this highly prestigious commission, David not only reasserted himself as a leading painter in France, but in its abundance of detail and contemporary nature, he demonstrated his ability to manipulate his classical style to suit very different depictions.

Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824)

Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824)

Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces was David's last painting, one he intended to be a final statement about his oeuvre. When he began it in 1821, he announced, "It is the last of the paintings I want to do, but I want to surpass myself in it. I will inscribe it with the date of my seventy-fifth year, and after that I never want to touch a brush again."

Exiled in Belgium and in failing health, one is tempted to read his choice of subject as a nod towards reconciliation and peace. Venus, goddess of love crowns the god of war, Mars, her hand perched suggestively on his thigh. While the subject is drawn from Roman mythology and the paint handling is linear and crisp, the painting differs radically from the examples of his earliest and most famous years. Set in a decorative and fantastical heavenly space, David's heroic man is supplanted by the dominant figure of a reclining female nude. Both the narrative and the composition are more feminine than masculine.

For years, scholars considered this work to be an example of David's declining faculties; his late work was derided as inferior and often omitted from serious discussions of his career. Yet, it is possible that David chose to reinvent his style for his last painting to demonstrate his continued relevance to an art world that had abandoned Neoclassicism in favor of Romanticism. David's own student, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, was gaining attention at the time for his languid female nudes and there was new preference for more literary and imaginary subjects. If we consider the painting in this context, David's ability, at this late hour of his life, to evolve beyond his typical style, speaks to heart of modernism and its ever-changing nature.

Related Artists and Major Works

28 July: Liberty Leading the People (1830)

28 July: Liberty Leading the People (1830)

Artist: Eugène Delacroix (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Delacroix's painting 28 July: Liberty Leading the People features individuals of various ages charging across a canvas littered with dead bodies. In the center, striding over the heap of corpses, a bare-breasted female figure holds a rifle in her left hand and a French flag in her right as she looks off to one side. To her right are two men; one in a white shirt brandishing a sabre running beside a formally dressed man with black jacket, tie, and top hat holding a musket. To the woman's left is a young boy brandishing two pistols. The background is filled with smoke and devastation, and just the barely visible outline of Paris.

Considered to be Delacroix's most famous work, it is one of many based on a true historical event, in this case a short-lived, days-long revolt against the French monarchy which ended the reign of Louis Philippe and helped establish the Second Republic. Though he did not participate in the rebellion, Delacroix wanted to honor the brave revolutionaries in a painting. As he wrote to his brother, "I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and if I have won no victories for the nation, at least I will paint for it. " The painting is rich in symbolism. The unity of classes is represented by the presence of a bourgeois gentleman fighting beside those of the lower classes; meanwhile the national colors of France (blue, white, and red) are repeated throughout the composition, in the flag most obviously, but also in the tones of the smoke and sky, and the clothes of the kneeling figure who looks up at the main female figure. This woman serves as an allegory for the notion of Liberty and by extension the French Republic itself (her bared breasts situate her within the realm of classicism more than contemporary history, for instance); Delacroix shows her as a warrior, ready to fight while she literally charges forth, leading the people.

The power of this work lies in its ability to capture, simultaneously, the patriotic spirit of the event as well as its chaotic, violent reality. According to critic Jonathan Jones, "Delacroix has painted the hysterical freedom and joy of the revolution. His painting survives as revolution's most charismatic visual icon. And yet it is not naive. Death is part of the glamour, and there is sickness at the very centre [sic] of progress. Romanticism is not an optimistic art. If Delacroix's painting understands the seduction of revolution better than any other, it also acknowledges the violence that is inseparable from that belief in total change and the rule of the crowd. " Delacroix's intentional refusal to idealize would be embraced by later 19th-century artists such as Daumier and Courbet who depicted scenes of everyday life, complete with its uglier or more violent aspects. Interestingly, Delacroix's image of Liberty would become a supreme symbol of Republicanism in France, earning a place on both its currency and postage stamps, and securing Delacroix's position in the legacy of France's greatest artists.

This painting also had a direct influence on Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun who, inspired by this painting, created his 1995-96 work Freedom Leading the People. Depicting himself in the role of all the figures leading the charge, Minjun was visually representing a different kind of revolution, in which according to Delacroix historian Simon Lee he "examined the infiltration and subversion of the Western canon by Asian artists. "

Three Women at the Spring (1921)

Artist: Pablo Picasso (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Picasso made careful studies in preparation for this, his most ambitious treatment of what is an old classical subject. It makes reference to earlier pictures by Poussin and Ingres - titans of classical painting - but it also draws inspiration from Greek sculpture, and indeed the massive gravity of the figures is very sculptural. Critics have speculated that the subject appealed to him because of the recent birth of his first son, Paulo; the somber attitude of the figures may be explained by the contemporary preoccupation in France with mourning the dead of the First World War.

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