Jacques-Louis David - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Jacques-Louis David
Childhood and Education
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.
The hugely famous Rococo artist François Boucher was a relative of David's, and arranged for the young artist to study with the more fashionable artist Joseph-Marie Vien, believing them to be of compatible styles. While a student, David was maimed during a fencing match with a colleague, a facial injury that compounded a speech impediment. The wound eventually became a non-malignant tumor that made his speech even more difficult and resulted in a visible deformity to his face.
In 1766, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Determined to win the prestigious Prix de Rome (which funded a residency in Rome), he was initially unsuccessful in his pursuit. Not a gracious loser, David tried to starve himself to death after losing one attempt and openly disliked the artist, Joseph-Benoît Suvée, who won the prize, calling him at a later date "ignorant and horrible." He feared that the judges were against him, developing a paranoia that lasted throughout his career. He endured the long and difficult competition five times before winning and upon receiving this coveted price in 1774, he was said to have remarked, "This is the first time in four years that I have begun to draw breath."
While in Rome, David received his first commission, an altarpiece, St Roch Interceding with the Virgin for the Plaque Stricken (1780), which brought him great recognition. Realizing that his reputation had been made, he then turned down a scholarship to remain in Rome for another year, returning to Paris to start his career.
In Paris, David was known for his art and his bold, sometimes controversial behavior, which was often at odds with the French Royal Academy. Despite his arrogance and his failure to follow proper procedures for exhibiting his paintings, the detailed execution of his works and their highly dramatic narratives made him the leader of the new classicizing style. This built upon mid-century criticism of the Rococo, which catered to aristocratic tastes with decorative, often immoral, paintings of leisure. Denis Diderot had been particularly outspoken about the need to redefine art as an educational tool that conveyed proper civic virtues to a wide audience. David's style even attracted the attention of future American president Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris as the American minister to France; after seeing the Salon of 1787, Jefferson declared, "The best thing is the Death of Socrates by David, and a superb one it is."
The wealth of David's wife Suzanne, with whom he would have four children, helped support their family, along with the fees he received for portraits of wealthy and prominent French families, as well as his royal commissions. As a member of the Academy, David took on many pupils with one of the most popular painting studios where young artists could apprentice. This "School of David" would spawn the next generation of French painters, although many of them would rebel against the style of their teacher. In turn, David was not above petty jealousies when a student received too much recognition or David perceived they were threatening his own artistic standing.
Today, David is often associated with the French Revolution of 1789, yet, while The Oath of the Horatii (1784) became a visual symbol of the people's struggle, it was painted for a royal patron years earlier. Eventually, he became a full-fledged participant in the Revolution, aligning with the radical Jacobin party. As a member of the National Convention, he oversaw the death of former friends who resisted Revolutionary ideals. He even voted in favor of the execution of Louis XVI; at this, his wife left him.
He also used his art to support and celebrate the Revolution and its heroes, most famously Jean-Paul Marat. His memorial painting of the assassination of Marat would become a central image of Revolutionary sacrifice and propaganda. David's writings reflected his enthusiasm to serve: "I am making it my duty to answer the noble invitations of patriotism and of glory that will consecrate the history of the most felicitous and most astonishing Revolution." David would also organize events, such as the processional relocation of Voltaire's remains to the new Pantheon.
David's alliance with the Jacobins soon became a liability, however; he was arrested for treason in August 1794. Due to ill health and a fear that he would try to commit suicide, he was released from prison prior to being granted amnesty in October 1795.
While in prison, David's eyesight began to weaken, yet his personal and professional life did not suffer. His former wife returned and they remarried in November 1796. In December 1795, he was nominated to the Académie de peinture et de sculpture, which had replaced the Royal Academy as the central art institution in France. His work was in demand again, in part because he had gained the favor of the new leader of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. In December 1803, Napoleon named the artist as a Knight of the Legion and commissioned a work commemorating his coronation as Emperor.
This political association would lead to David's exile when Napoleon fell from power in 1815. David had no place in the Restoration monarchy; King Louis XVIII's government persecuted those who had supported Napoleon and as a result David was exiled from France. In January 1816, he and his wife settled in Brussels, where he spent the rest of his life.
Despite failing health he continued to work, taking commissions for portraits and completing his last great painting, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces in 1824. At this time some of his students tried to negotiate his return to France, but angry at the country that had turned him away and perhaps aware that Neoclassical style was no longer in fashion there, he refused any attempt. He even rebuked one student who had requested his signature on a petition for amnesty, stating, "Never speak to me again of things I ought to do to get back. I do not have to do anything; what I ought to have done for my country I have already done. I founded a brilliant school; I painted classic pictures that the whole of Europe came to study. I have fulfilled my part of the bargain; let the government now do the same."
David died in Brussels in 1825; his wife, also in poor health, had returned to Paris for medical treatment and was not with him in his final days. The French monarchy refused to allow his body to be returned to France for burial. Allegedly, after his wife died, their son secretly placed David's heart in her coffin, and she was buried in Paris. As part of the 200th anniversary of the Revolution, the French government tried to repatriate David's remains in 1989, but the Belgian government refused based on the argument that his grave had become a historical monument.
The Legacy of Jacques-Louis David
David used his art to sway political opinion, curry favor with government regimes, and fuel uprisings. His direct political involvement brought history painting in contact with current affairs. This immediacy would inspire later artists to represent the contemporary world, although the Romantics (many of whom were David's students) would radically reimagine the engagement to criticize those in power, rendering more emotionally laden narratives in a more painterly style.
Indeed, David's impact on modernism is most evident in his influence on Romanticism; the latter movement was directly connected to the rise of Modern Art. Romanticism grew directly out of Neoclassicism; its rejection of the clear moral universe and pictorial precision of Neoclassicism was equally a rejection of David's teachings. His students shifted away from the severe narratives of David to more sensuous and complicated Greco-Roman histories and mythologies, providing the first stirrings of Romantic painting.
In turn, artists such as Paul Cézanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who were directly influenced by Romanticism, can be connected back to David and his studio. In the 20th century, David's work was such a centerpiece of canonical art history that it was often referred to by artists who wished to make clear political statements while drawing upon the history of art, including Vik Muniz and Yue Minjun.