Jacques-Louis David: Artist Revolutionary and Revolutionary Artist.

1. Introduction

The French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was the leading figure of Neoclassical painting and, indeed, defined the art of Neoclassicism for the whole of Europe. Working on the grand (academic) scale David’s heroic paintings, including portraits, are associated with the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Era and its aftermath. David’s historical and artistic significance is thus encapsulated within two successive historical epochs – the Revolution and the Empire.

David was, between 1785 and 1815, the most important painter in Europe. His life’s work spanned, therefore, a period of extraordinary upheaval and change. This epoch through which he lived and worked encompassed the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the abolition of the monarchy, the Napoleonic era, and the eventual return of the Bourbon kings to France.

With the death of Louis XIV (1638-1715) the Sun King, there occurred the fin siècle, the end of a period but art continued under Louis XV as the Rococo style. This period eschewed an atheistic trend with the dispensation  of religion as far as the intellectual elite was concerned. This was the period of the Encyclopaedists in France and the period of the Third Estate or Le Troisieme Etat. The era of Voltaire (1694-1778), Diderot (1713-1784), Rousseau (1712-1778), and D’Alembert (1717-1783). During this period the architectural drawings of Piranesi influenced French taste and his Roman prints were exhibited in Paris. It is within this social, political and intellectual ferment that David initially developed as an artist.

In the 1780’s David perfected a style of noble and also dramatic painting that corresponded with contemporary demands for images that were morally elevating. The essence of classical painting, and thus Neo-classicism , is that it had to have a moralising influence coupled with symmetry and repetition. David, both as revolutionary artist and artist revolutionary, created paintings that were representations of changing periods. His Neo-classical style showed stylistic figures, the containment of emotion, and also moral control. Therefore David “…by virtue of his extraordinary skill in the administration and politics of the arts…played a significant public role, especially during the critical period of the Revolution.” (Friedlander, 1952). David’s career shows him as very influential in the arts in France from the start of the Revolution until the fall of Napoleon. His sphere of power was total and the inclusive rules he formulated were as dictatorial as that of Louis XIV’s premier peintre Lebrun.

2.  David the artist revolutionary

In Paris on August 30th 1748 David was born into a prosperous middle-class family. His first training was with a distant relative – the Rococo painter Francois Boucher (1703-1770). However, realising their different temperaments Boucher sent David to study with Joseph Vien (1716-1809) at the Academie Royale. Vien also taught him the light style of the Rococo. David won the Prix de Rome in 1774 with his Antiochus and Statonice and went with Vien to Rome in 1776 upon Vien’s appointment as the director of the French Academy in Rome. Prior to winning the Prix de Rome in 1774 David had come second in 1771 with the Combat of Mars and Minerva, second again in 1772 with Apollo and Diana Attacking Niobe and her Children. Again in 1773 he was second with the Death of Seneca.

During this trip to Rome he became strongly influenced by classical art and the classically inspired paintings of the 17th century artist Nicholas Poussin. In Italy he developed his interest in the antique and as a result rapidly evolved an individual neoclassical style. He sought inspiration from a painterly representation of reliefs from antiquity. It is this early training and drawing subject matter from the antique that appears in David’s basing of gestures and forms on Roman sculpture. Whilst in Rome he came into contact with the initiators of the new classical revival. One representative of which was the Scottish antiquary, history and portrait painter Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798). Hamilton became an important member of the Neoclassical school in Rome centred around A. R. Mengs and J. J. Winckelmann. David returned to Paris in 1780.

In the early 1780’s David repudiated his earlier Rococo training with a painting in 1784 entitled The Oath of the Horatii , see Figure 1, and which was recognised immediately as an important work in art. David deliberately intended this picture to proclaim the new neoclassical style. The painting is executed with cool and lucid colour based on strong, simple and even severe drawing. Its neoclassical style shows emphasis on ideal forms, dramatic lighting, and clarity of gesture. In addition it presents a moralistic and, by


Figure 1.  The Oath of the Horatii (1784).

implication, a patriotic theme. David, with The Oath of the Horatii not only involved in the introduction of the neoclassical style into France, but at the same time provided the principal model for noble and heroic historical compositions for the next two decades. The ethical and political implications are also relevant. Thematically it advocates a rejection of the diversions pursued by the pleasure loving French aristocracy. The Oath is a plea for a return to the traditional and austere values of the early Roman Republic. The 1780’s in France were the years when there occurred the social and moral reaction to the frivolous style of the Rococo. Indeed, David’s own socially superior connections drew him into liberal intellectual circles and as a result he became highly politicised.

The Oath then became a political symbol of the agitated times developing in France. Upon completion of the painting the eruption of the French Revolution was only four years hence. Its popularity was based on the perception of combining the heroic with that of civic virtue. In a similar patriotic vein David followed with his Socrates Drinking Hemlock in 1787, see Figure 2, and in 1789 exhibited The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, see Figure 3, and The Loves of Paris and Helen, see Figure 4.


Figure 2. Socrates Drinking the Hemlock (1787).


Figure 3.  The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789).


Figure 4. The Loves of Paris and Helen (1789).

David was active in sympathy with the French revolution of 1789, played a prominent role as a Deputy to the Convention from 1792, and served on may committees – including that which voted for the execution of Louis XVI. David enlisted in the ranks of the extreme wing of Robespierre’s Jacobins. Now, as an established painter of the Revolution, he was commissioned to immortalise in 1790 the Tennis Court Oath. See Figure 5.


Figure 5.  The Tennis Court Oath (1790).

This painting reached only its preliminary stages with modifications as the participants fell from power during the exigencies of the Revolution. The studies of the Tennis Court Oath were the masterful success in portraying a living theme. It was exemplary of his sense of reality and craftsmanship which was fundamental to the classicist David. David thus brought to fruition a unified scene of a hundred gesticulating and motivated men. Portrayed as heroes but with an abiding accuracy in both detail and as a whole scene. The heroic and stylised poses are evident but so is the sense of depth and representation of space.  Never executed it is known through engravings and studies exhibited in the Salon of 1791.

The victories and martyrs of the revolution were extolled by David in his works. Three paintings – conceived as portraits – were the Death of Lepetelier, see Figure 6, the famous Death of Marat, see Figure 7, and The Death of Bara, see Figure 8. As portraits they were intended to “…rise above the representational sphere into the domain of universal tragedy.” (Friedlander, 1952), and just as significantly it was also said “…he devoted his brush to the cause of the Revolution, and produced propagandist paintings that glorified


Figure 6. The Death of Lepetelier (engraving by Tardieu).

republican martyrs.” (Lee, 1999). Lepetelier de Saint-Fargeau was murdered by either a counter-revolutionary agent of Louis XVI, or by a soldier who objected to him having voted for the death of the king. The picture was commissioned by the revolutionary Convention and portrays – the picture is known through an engraving by Tardieu – shows the martyr’s head upon a pillow with the bare upper body displaying the sword wound. The drawing is strong and appears monumental to the extent that it resembles a reclining marble statue on a sarcophagus.  David similarly promised the Convention he would immortalise Marat who was assassinated by the royalist Charlotte Corday. In his Death of Marat David


Figure 7. The Death of Marat (1793).

resorts to using the impact of suggestion. David is masterful in his display of realistic power and ability to portray a likeness. The picture is known for its stylised simplicity using a minimum of means so typical of David’s classical education. Marat appears to struggle to rise from his box-like bath, like Lazarus, into a starkly empty upper background so reminiscent of Caravaggio. Again, the breast wound is shown without any exaggeration of gore whilst Marat’s head tilts back in his agony of death. It is remarkable for its powerful expression achieved by understatement. gain, Caravaggio’s influence is apparent in the use of austere green, brown, and grey tones applied in simple flat planes. The picture is painterly in technique with moderate chiarascuro stressing the tragedy and spiritual loss felt by the Revolution itself.


Figure 8.  The Death of Bara (1793).

The Death of Bara was never completed. Bara was a youthful drummer boy who participated in the war in the Vendee and killed by the legitimists. The body is nude, somewhat androgynous, as it lies against a hillside. Long and fine limbed the martyred hero clutches a Republican cockade on his chest. Even though Bara’s eyes are half open the pathos of the other martyr paintings is missing. Considering Lepetelier and Marat his finest works David kept them in his atelier and refused to sell them. These are pictures by a revolutionary of revolutionaries and portray calmly, monumentally and honourably not only the tragedy of the patriot but also “…the passion that shook these passionate men and artists during those terrible, immeasurably wrought-up years.” (Friedlander, 1952). The essence of the ‘martyr’ pictures is their exposure of the sterility of slaughter and the nobility, even in death, of the victims pose.

3.  David the revolutionary artist

David asserted the principle of artistic independence. Initially he insisted against the rigid attitudes of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. David fulminated against the arrogance of the Academy and directed his tirades against their factional tyrannies, mediocrity and slovenliness. David was thus opposed t the powers that were responsible for artistic training. At the height of Robespierre’s Jacobin regime David was an academician of middle rank and spokesman for the dissidents. The revolution exacerbated the academies factional disputes and led to its closure as the ‘citadel of privilege’ – an act in which David shared. David justified the closure of academies as “…those last refuges of aristocracy…” (David, 1880) by stating the “…damage the Academies to art itself, how far they are from fulfilling the purpose which they say themselves. Let me unmask the party spirit which guides them, the vile jealousies of their members, the cruel methods which they use to stifle nascent talent.” (David, 1880). Thus the Royal Academy was abolished and the Institut National constituted in late 1795. Its birth therefore was “…not a fundamental hostility to the institution as such, but a determination to change its political composition.” (Eitner, 1971).

At the height of The Terror he was a leading light on the Committee of Public Instruction and in this capacity developed a grand scheme to redevelop Paris, set up a National Jury of Arts, and organised the Central Museum. However, he voted for the purchase of works by Rubens and Poussin, designed the uniforms for Republican functionaries, and controlled the artistic arrangements for the festivals Etre Supreme and Regeneration, as well as the solemn funeral processions of dead patriots such as Marat. David became the painter of the new France and achieved his revolutionary artist stance also through the impact of combining his classicism with realism. His fully developed style can be described as the tragique et historique, as well as the head of a powerful school. A abiding concern of David was his desire to revolutionise art education.

4.  David, Napoleon, and Empire

David was imprisoned after the fall of his friend Robespierre in 1794. Deeply affected, moved, and broken by this event he defended Robespierre and renounced any further involvement in politics. From this moment on he devoted himself to artistic problems alone. Whilst in prison he painted a landscape called The View of the Luxembourg Gardens, see Figure 9. A small masterpiece which was romantic, evocative and full of feeling. A plea by his wife, who had divorced him, ensured his release in 1796.

Luxembourg gardens

Figure 9The View of the Luxembourg Gardens (1794).

Whilst in prison he also began painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women, see Figure 10. The picture illustrates the theme of victory of love over conflict – it being said that it honours his wife as well as being a plea for conciliation in civil strife. Possibly true as he remarried his wife in 1796. Not only did the Sabine Women re-establish his fame and


Figure 10. The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1798).

fortune it also brought him to the attention of Napoleon. In The Sabines he set out to create a picture of increased refinement in the Greek manner. Modelled on classical forms the figures are given greater singular emphasis. The elegant Hellenistic and sculptural figures are executed with a restrained painterliness and owe much to Napoleon’s captured antiquities – e.g., the Apollo Belvedere that was brought to Paris.

The Napoleonic Era was born out of the French Revolution and David, without reserve, glorified napoleon and the Empire with as much fervour as he had been the painter of the Revolution par excellence. The tiers etat or Third Estate, which fell apart during the Revolution, was the strongly patriotic and nationalist product of the Revolution. This markedly affected moralistic-artistic thought. Napoleon thus personified popular aspirations towards stability and renewed serenity, and David responded enthusiastically to the ‘heroism’ of Napoleon’s personality. From 1799 to 1815 David was Napoleon’s official painter and chronicled his rule with huge portrayals such as Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine of 1805-1807, see Figure 11.


Figure 11 Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1805-1807).

Between 1802 and 1807 David glorified Napoleon’s exploits in a series of paintings that show a change in style and technique.  The feeling expressed in his earlier republican and heroic revolutionary works, with their severity of composition and cold colours, is replaced by a new sentiment for pageant and almost Romantic approach. David, however, was always opposed to the Romantic school.

In order to glorify his reign, and himself, Napoleon needed artists. Napoleon thus recruited David within his orbit. Under Napoleon’s return from exile in Elba, David threw himself unconditionally  behind the Emperor and thus against the Bourbons. David idealised his Emperor from 1804 in his Napoleon at St Bernard, see Figure 12, with its battlefield pose as Napoleon requested “…calme sur un cheval fougeux…” (cited in Friedlander, 1952). However, Napoleon actually crossed the St Bernard Pass on a mule on a bright summer’s day.


Figure 12. Napoleon Crossing the St Bernard Pass (1800).

Napoleon appointed David the premier painter of the Empire but only two of four great commissions – the Napoleon Crowning Josephine (The Sacre), and the Distribution of the Eagles – came to fruition. However, these official paintings were those in which David’s sense of reality came to the fore. Thus with his Revolution paintings and his Napoleonic paintings David strove to be seen both as patriot and propagandist to the new order as well as capturing the cult of the military heroism on canvas. Indeed, as the painter advocate of napoleon the work of David was fundamental to the creation of the Empire Style.

With the fall of Napoleon David went to Brussels in exile having scorned the mercy of the restored Louis XVIII. Heroic to himself as well David thus remained faithful to his revolutionary zeal to the end. David’s later works were not as vital as his previous paintings and he concentrated on mythological themes exemplified by Cupid and Psyche of 1824, see Figure 13, and his Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824), see Figure 14.


Figure 13. Cupid and Psyche (1817).


Figure 14. Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824).

These paintings  appear to be a continuation of a style he practised in 1809 with Sappho and Phaon, see Figure 15. hey reflect the archaising and pan-European movement that David moved into after 1800 – a trend that led eventually to the early Romantics. These pictures did not revitalise his art and became echoes or shadows of his former style.


Figure 15. Sappho and Phaon (1809).

5.  Summary

It can now be seen that the historical importance of David’s art arose out of his heroic vision and determined moral drive. For David the period before 1785 was one of preparation. His painting after the fall of Napoleon in 1815 was a weary echo of his former work. He was then, as both a revolutionary artist and artist revolutionary, the ethical and heroic painter of the ethical and heroic era of the French revolution.

David, like few other artists before or after him, exercised an all embracing power over art and taste of his period. There seemed at the time no one wo could contest his popularity in the visual arts. What became known as the revolution Davidienne encompassed his flair for recognising the demands of the historic moment and the significant that became decisive for the future. His subjects we have seen included the allegorical, historical, mythological. His quest for ideal beauty was anchored to the assumed canons of classical sculpture that were eventually developed into the hallmarks of 19th century academic art. It is in this manner that David became the very artist with whom 19th century painting began.

David welcomed, as a liberal, the vision of social change that the Revolution promised. After 1789, as an artist revolutionary, David adopted a naturalistic rather than neoclassical style to portray contemporary events of the French Revolution – the period 1789 to 1799. An example we have seen was the Death of Marat. Later he was napoleon’s official painter until 1815. As such he chronicled in huge works the career of Napoleon , e.g., the Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine. Upon Napoleon’s downfall David left France for exile in Brussels. During these later years until his death, he returned to mythological subjects derived from antiquity and painted in a more theatrical style, e.g., Cupid and Psyche. Possibly his work weakened because he was divorced from his previous revolutionary milieu. Certainly after the Restoration his social and moral influence in France receded. David did have a profound influence on the development of French and European art.

A favourite pupil was Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) but who was drawn more to the vibrant colourism of Rubens. Gros met Napoleon in Italy in 1793 and was appointed official battle painter. An example is his Napoleon at Eylau of 1808, see Figure 16. After David’s exile Gros took over his atelier and even though he reverted to a more neoclassical style


Figure 16.  Napoleon at Eylau (1808).

he is regarded as one of the leading figures in the development of Romanticism. His work was colourful and dramatic with a temperamental leaning towards the romantic but he influenced both Gericault and Delacroix, as well as his own pupil Bonnington. Anne-Louise Girodet (1767-1824) had a style that followed David but his themes were acclaimed by the Romantics  even though he also won renown for his Napoleonic pictures. One of his best known paintings is one that caused a scandal because of its satirical sexual allusions.This was his Mademoiselle Lange as Diana of 1799, see Figure 17.


Figure 17.  Mademoiselle Lange as Diana (1799).

His unusual and dramatic colour effects are seen in his Burial of Atala of 1809, see Figure 18, and which is an expressive presentation of French Romanticism in theme but retains the balanced composition typical of neoclassicism.


Figure 18. The Entombment of Ayala (1808).

Francois Gerard (1770-1837) was another favourite of David. A popular court painter and society portrait painter such as his acclaimed Jean-Baptiste Isabey and his Daughter of 1796, see Figure 19. He also produced mythological and historical works such as Cupid and Psyche, see Figure 20. Gerard sweetened and softened his style into a more charming


Figure 19Jean-Baptiste Isabey and his Daughter (1796).

and superficial mannered and graceful approach. The most famous and enduring of the pupils of David was Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

Whilst in exile David continued to paint outstanding portraits – an activity he followed throughout his career as an artist. Indeed, his portraits show the essence of his role as a revolutionary artist because they show his supreme ability to combine Neoclassicism with realistic portrayal. Examples of his numerous portraits include the coolly erotic Madame Recamier (1800), see Figure 20.


Figure 20Portrait of Madame Recamier (1800).

He also painted the classically posed Portrait of Madame de Verniac, see Figure 21, and the sophisticated Portrait of Madame de Thelusson, see Figure 22.


Figure 21.  Portrait of Madame de Verniac.


Figure 22.  Portrait of Madame de Thelusson.

David represents therefore the transition from 18th century Rococo to 19th century realism. Both as artist revolutionary and revolutionary artist, neither role being mutually exclusive. David created an artistic political vehicle that combined both the ethical and the antiquarian. His pupils Antoine Jean Gros and j. A. A Ingres were influenced by his cool studied Neoclassicism, and his heroic and patriotic themes opened the way for the Romantics. David died in Brussels on December 29th, 1825.


Brookner, A.  (1980).  Jacques-Louis David.  Chatto & Windus, London.

Chilvers, I. et al. eds.  (1997).  The Oxford Dictionary of Art.  OUP.

David, J. L. J.  (1880).  Le peintre Louis David. Paris. (citing J-L David’s text. Document in Eitner, L. (1971).

Eitner, L.  (1971).  Neoclassicism and Romanticism, 1750-1850. Sources and Documents. Vol 1, Enlightenment and Revolution. Prentice-Hall, London.

Friedlander, W.  (1952).  David to Delacroix.  Harvard UP.

Irwin, D.  (1997).  Neoclassicism.  Phaidon, London.

Preziosi, D. ed.  (1998).  The Art of Art History. A Critical Anthology.  OUP.

Read, H.  (1994).  Dictionary of Art and artists.  Thames & Hudson, London.



Filed under History Of Art

2 responses to “Jacques-Louis David: Artist Revolutionary and Revolutionary Artist.

  1. – The Death of ”Lepeletier” and not Lepetelier !
    – Mars disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824). Dec 1823 !
    (commented by David himself, his last work, exhibited in Brussels in 1824)

  2. Pingback: Jacques Louis David – Site Title

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