Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
In the 1760s, Neoclassical art was born, a movement that stirred Europe for several decades, retaliating against the sensuous Rocco style. Due to the discovers of the excavation of ancient Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum, the art movement brought major interest to the classical arts from ancient Rome and Greece- focusing on straight lines, minimalistic color palette, and simplicity of form. During the time the ancient Roman cities were discovered, one of Neoclassicism’s most prominent figures was born- Jacques Louis David.
Born to a father who died in a duel and an abandoning mother, David was raised by his uncles and given a classical education at the College des Quatre- Nations in Université de Paris. Even though his guardians’ desired him to be an architect, he pursued a career to painting instead. He was placed under the training of Joseph-Marie Vien, who was a leading promoter of Neoclassicism. During his years at the Royal Academy, he attempted to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, which was a scholarship to stay in Rome for 3-5 years. Having lost three times consecutively, he was finally able to win the prize with his painting Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus’ Disease.
While studying in Italy, he stated “The Antique will not seduce me, it lacks animation, it does not move”, but eventually became influenced by the Neoclassical doctrines that had developed in Rome. Visiting the excavated ruins of Pompeii in 1779, it developed his belief in the persistence of classical culture being rooted in eternal conceptual and formal power. Over the years, he began painting his early work and painted one of his most famous paintings, “Oath of the Horatii”. The scene depicts a Roman legend between two quarreling cities, Rome and Alba Longa. Instead of choosing armies to fight to war, they agree to choose three men from each city and send them to fight off. On the Roman side, three brothers from the Horatii family agree to sacrifice their lives by fighting three other brothers from the Curiatii family. During the confrontation, only one of the Horatii brothers survive, but makes a strong comeback killing all the three brothers from Alba Longa. The painting depicts the three Horatii brothers saluting to their father, who holds the swords in front of them. At the bottom right corner, a woman named Camila is crying, who is betrothed to one of the Curiatii brothers. As the legend goes, the surviving brother kills Camilia for crying over the enemy. The painting became a huge success among the public, and gave birth to the Roman salute, which was appropriated by the Nazis during World War II as they adopted this fully extended right arm salute.
During the commencement of the French Revolution, David was a supporter of the movement, being allies with Robespierre and a member of the Club des Jacobins. This club contained the most radical revolutionary members, and were associated with the “Reign of Terror”. Being part of the radical, exclusive group, he voted for the beheading of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antionette, and became active in revolutionary propaganda for the new republic of France. His first painting dedicated to the Revolution was the Oath in the Tennis Court, which was commissioned by the Club des Jacobins. With this, he transformed the contemporary event of the ongoing Third Estate meeting in the indoor tennis court into a historical artwork. Similar to the Oath of Horatii, he represents the unification of men in a patriotic perspective with outstretched arms representing the Roman salute. With this painting, David went onto the attempt of capturing current political events in real time, as it pertains to one of Neoclassicism’s attributes in classicizing contemporary topics.
However, the political circumstances in France tensioned and became too polarized to complete the painting. The unity in the Oath in the Tennis Court no longer existed in a radicalized 1792. Becoming a leader member in the Committee of Public Instruction, Davide was Robespierre’s minister of the arts, and became the vessel for mass propaganda of French revolutionary ideals. This is seen in David’s The Death of Marat, which was a painting dedicated to his friend Marat, a radical Revolutionist who was most responsible for the September massacres, and the death warrants of those who opposed the revolution. Depicted in a angelic, Christ-like way, Marat is depicted as a holy martyr who died tragically, having warm light bathe over his corpse. Despite his horrible skin condition the caused blisters, his skin was shown as pristine and healthy instead. His softened, melancholic expression gave the audience a sense of pity, as he died with a letter in his hand from Charlotte Courday. On the wooden table, money lied there, instructed to be given to a widow by Marat, instead of his usual death warrants. The crime of justice for one of the most extremist, bloodthirsty men in the French Revolution was given a saint-like painting, depicting Marat as a humble man of the people.
Being named the Pieta of the revolution, it became the leading image of the Reign of Terror and immortalized Marat and David as key figures of the French Revolution. Afterwards, he also painted other two of the Revolution’s “martyrs”- Lepelletier de Saint-Fargeau and Barra.
After years of counter revolutionary voices being silenced, Robespierre’s Reign of Terror came to an end, and he was guillotined in July 1794. David’s revolutionary patriotism was soon antagonized, being named the “tyrant of the arts”. He was arrested and placed in prison for several months, and there he painted his own portrait of his younger self. Years later, he developed a new style of painting known as “Pure Greek Style” and characterized this in terms of smoother curves and more natural poses. This type of art came to attention to Napoleon, and he became the official painter for him. Being appointed as his First painter, he was commissioned to commemorate the inaugurals ceremonies in four paintings. One of them, the Coronation of Napoleon, depicted Napoleon’s coronation at Notre Dame de Paris, and was composted of the rules of neoclassicism with lines running across several axes and all eyes turned to the center of the painting- Napoleon.
After the reign of Napoleon fell in 1815, the Bourbons returned to power and King Louis XVIII offered David the position of court painter. Refusing this offer, he chose self-exile in Brussels and spent the remainder of his life there with his wife. He painted in that time mythological scenes, and created his last grand work- Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces. Taking elements of neoclassicism, it is seen by some as his last Neo-classical piece in retaliation to the growing romanticism movement in the 1800s. It was completed three years later, before dying in a carriage accident in December 1825.
In connection with contemporary life, Jacques-Louis David, although having been a radical revolutionist, is one of the most influential artists today who managed to depict the political turmoil of the French Revolution. Not only did he create grand masterpieces of paintings during his time, but he also managed to attend his testament of being a political leader and educator by surviving when his friends had fallen. He redefined the historic paintings of the 17th century in France, relating ancient historic figures to ongoing contemporary events in the revolution. His revolutionary fervor led him to organizing propaganda festivals and dispensing the occurring French Revolution to the public eye, and many were influenced by the moving art of his.
Using his Neoclassical realism to push the revolution ideals towards the public with paintings of martyrs and historic events, he changed the world across spheres as a political artist. Although he is most known for his alliance to the French revolutionary ideals, he was also a person who switched affiliations to whoever was in power. From pertaining to the stable monarchy- to the radical revolutionaries- and to Napolean’s new regime, David utilized his position and cleverness to adapt to every changing power and suit his artistic expression to their needs. However, no matter who was his master, he left a lasting influence on the neoclassical era with the subject of his paintings.
The neoclassical movement rose in retaliation to the overly decorative and whimsy essence of the Rococo and Baroque period, focusing rather on current political and social events of the time. The core belief of this movement was that art should express the ideal virtues of life, not the pleasures and vanity, and could influence the audience by imparting a moralizing message. Similar to today’s art world, contemporary artists seek to express their beliefs and communicate their messages across the world through contemporary art. Influencing from neoclassism, this movement seeks to reflect on society and controversial issues around the world that deal with identity and society. Of course, using different mediums compared to the neoclassical era, contemporary art seeks to find innovating techniques and ways to create art using technology and objects.
In personal relevance to living in today’s society, the important figures of the neoclassical art period such as Jacques Louis David have changed the purpose of art in today’s world. Art before pertained to the rich nobility who would have their portraits and wishes painted, accumulating status from owning aesthetic canvas on their walls. But the French Revolution brought a shift to the world of art- turning away from art for religion and monarchy- to using it instead for conveying human rights and enlightenment ideals.
However, the world of contemporary art today seems to trace back to its contrary state. Having the characteristic of being art used to bring awareness on global issues and comment on society’s faults, it is tagged with a price that only today’s “nobility” can attain. Similar to the pre-revolutionary art, those who can afford the $25k paintings place it on their walls for the nice aesthetic of their second homes. And although it strips away from the negative characteristic of art with no meaning, it is still owned by those who find no genuine personal connection to the art. In a similar way, it coincides with the irony of the French Revolution; revolting against an oppressing monarchy who did not care for its people, to placing bloodthirsty individuals in power who eventually were no different from the oppressive monarchs.
Jacques Louis David, a prominent figure in the French Revolution and artist in the Neoclassicist era, brought change to the world through redefining the purpose of art. Although an exceptional master at his crafts and technique, he sided with whomever had the most power, eventually becoming corrupted. And even in the smallest details observed through his shading and color schemes, a message lied underneath it all, while maintaining a perfect, symmetrical balance to please the viewer-a psychological master of the eye.
“About Contemporary Art.” About Contemporary Art (Education at the Getty), http://www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/contemporary_art/background1.html.
Boundless. “Boundless Art History.” Lumen, courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/neoclassicism/.
“The Death of Marat: The Propaganda of Jacques-Louis David | French Revolution.” The Conspiracy of Art, 11 June 2021, youtu.be/2bxjxUotvtA.
“Jacques-Louis David.” Artist Info, National Gallery of Art, http://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1212.html.
“Jacques-Louis David.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 13 Apr. 2021, http://www.biography.com/artist/jacques-louis-david.
“Jacques-Louis David.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Apr. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques-Louis_David.
“Jacques-Louis David: Painter and Revolutionary.” TheCollector, 1 July 2021, http://www.thecollector.com/jacques-louis-david-revolution/.
“Mars Being Disarmed by Venus.” Mars Being Disarmed by Venus by Jacques Louis David, http://www.jacqueslouisdavid.net/mars-being-disarmed-by-venus/.
McMurty, Leslie. “Tennis Court Oath Painting by David: Meaning & Analysis.” Study.com, 9 Aug. 2016.
Neagle, Kylie. “Discuss the Art and Politics of Jacques-Louis David and His Approach to Propaganda during the French Revolution.” Art Educators , arteducators.weebly.com/uploads/2/4/6/6/24662231/kneagle.pdf.
“Neoclassicism Movement Overview.” The Art Story, http://www.theartstory.org/movement/neoclassicism/.
“Oath of the Horatii.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Mar. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_the_Horatii.