Jacques-Louis David is known as the artistic leader of his time during a period of political, social, and cultural unrest and transformation in France. His career as a painter spanned across five decades, during which he witnessed and was influential in the French Revolution and France’s subsequent changes in governmental organization. His experiences can be seen in his art, which depict various historical events in which he was present. David played an important role in the development of “modern” art in the 1800s, so much so that Delacroix called him “the father of the entire modern school in painting and sculpture.”
Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris on August 30, 1748, to parents Louise-Maurice David and marie-Genevieve Buron. After an education at the Franciscan monastery of Picpus and Collège de Neauvais and Collège des Quatre Nations, David became the student of Joseph-Marie Vien and attended the Royal Acadmy of Painting and Sculpture. He competed for the Prix de Rome in 1771 and was awarded second place. He did not win first or second place for the next two years, but won on his fourth attempt in 1774. David rose to prominence in the 1780s and was a staunch supporter of the French Revolution and Republic. When Napoleon came into power, he appointed David as First Painter. When Napoleon fell from power, David, along with many of the Revolutionaries that had voted for the execution of Louis XVI, was exiled to Brussels. In Brussels, David spent the last decade of his life experimenting in subjects and styles of classical antiquity influences.
Styles and Techniques
Jacque-Louis David’s work combined classical antiquity with contemporary scenes of the French Revolution. According to Delacroix, the seemingly contradictory nature of David’s work was also its strength, “a singular combination of realism dn the ideal.” David identified major figures of the French Revolution with the heroes and gods of the classical world and he combined art and politics in his works.
David’s paintings are primarily done on canvas with oil paints. However, he also completed works with other media and techniques, including ink, etching, chalk, and engravings. For his major works such as The Sabine Women and The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame, David completed numerous study drawings using graphite. His work primarily focused on figures, and he usually studied poses using models dressed in clothes and jewelry befitting of the subject’s societal rank.
|Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau on His Deathbed, 1793, engraving
|Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau on His Deathbed, 1793, student charcoal drawing
Peletier de Saint-Fargeau on His Deathbed was David's first martyr portrait.
Le Peletier was formerly a marquis and member of the judiciary nobility. During the French Revolution, Philippe de Pâris, a former member of the king's guard and staunch loyalist sought to kill the Duke of Orléans, whom he believed was a traiter for supporting the king's execution. Pâris failed to find the Duke, but instead found Le Peletier, who admitted that he had voted for the king's execution. Pâris killed him, and the revolutionaries subsequently viewed him as a martyr. Jacque-Louis David organized the funeral ceremony, where Le Peletier's body was displayed with the top half uncovered. David subsequently completed an engraving and painting of the scene. The painting was believed to be destroyed by royalists and the engraving had been torn. However, a student's charcoal drawing of the painting is still preserved.
Reminiscent of classical antiquity, David's engraving emphasizes the beauty of the uncovered figure and likened Le Peletier to Greco-Roman heroism. Because the work as an etching, series of narrowly-spaced lines and cross-hatching are used to convey shadows and depth. As one can see from the charcoal drawing, a sword of Paris is depicted above the point of the wound, decorated with the fleur-de-lis, a symbol of the royalists. The sword also pierces through a paper on which is written "Je vote la mort du tyrant" (I vote for the death of the tyrant).
|The Sabine Women, 1799, oil on canvas
|Study Drawing for The Sabine Women, ca 1795-1796, graphite
The Sabine Women was David's great aesthetic manifesto painting; he spent 5 years on it. The painting's dimensions are very large--3.85 x 5.22 meters.
Upon his completion of the painting, David organized a private exhibition wherein he charged an admissions fee in order to reimburse himself for the supplies and time spent on the painting. When he exhibited the painting, he used a large mirror to demonstrate the perfection of the work. Critics noted that even in its reverse image, the perspective, drawing, and colors were flawless. The mirror technique had been used by artists since the Renaissance to make adjustments and corrections as they painted; the reverse image could reveal imperfections in light and color, weaknesses in drawing an perspective, lack of harmony and balance in the placement of objects in space, etc.
The painting depicts Sabine women and their children between Roman and Sabine warriors. A woman, dressed in white, stands with arms outstretched to a Roman soldier on the right and Sabine soldier on the left. The painting seems to deliver a political message, which is characteristic of David's style of combining politics and art. The woman in white plays a conciliatory role in the painting, calling for pardon and peace between warring brothers.
David completed many study drawings in preparation for his final work. He used graphite to observe and explore the figure and placements of his subjects. As one can see from the study drawing, David paid close attention to the lines and compositions of his subjects, noting details such as muscles and physiology. The squares, drawn in with graphite, likely served as guidelines for proportions and subject placement. Noticeably, there was no shading in his study drawings for the Sabine Women painting; he used mostly lines to convey form and structure.
|The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame, 1805-1807, oil on canvas
|Study Drawing for The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame, ca late 18th to early 19th century, black pencil and graphite
When Napoelon came into power as Emperor of the French, David became the Emperor’s First Painter. Napoelon ordered four paintings of the coronation festivities, one of which was the above painting.
On December 2, 1804, the day of the Coronation, a whole gallery was reserved for David in Notre-Dame. David sketched individual figures and crowd scenes with the help of his pupil, Rouget. His first sketch was of Napoleon placing the crown of Charlemagne on his own head. However, David and Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, eventually convinced him that the image of him crowning his wife was more flattering. Napoleon’s mother was actually absent from the ceremony, but David painted her face from life. Louis, the third Bonaparte brother, was unhappy with his place in the painting, and though others agreed with Louis, David refused to change it. As David explained in a letter, every aspect of a painting is calculated, and changing one figure could consequentially affect the entire composition.
In his painting, David used liberal amounts of gold, silver, and red to convey the grandeur of the occasion. As with his Sabine Women painting, David completed numerous study drawings in preparation for the final work. He continued the use of squares, presumably as guidelines for proportions and subject placement, but also incorporates shading to convey light and darkness.
I selected David as the subject of my research for a number of reasons. I really enjoy artwork from the Neoclassical era, which was strongly influenced by classical antiquity and Greco-Roman themes. Additionally, I think art that depicts historical events is very interesting because it offers visual access to times when photographs were unavailable. While browsing through Neoclassical artists, I came across David’s works and noticed that his subject matter included both Neoclassical and historical themes, an interesting combination.
Johnson, Dorothy. Jacque-Louis David: New Perspectives. Newark: U of Delaware, 2006. Print.
Monneret, Sophie. David and Neo-classicism. Paris: Terrail, 1999. Print.
Gontar, Cybele. "Neoclassicism." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-.