Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris on August 30, 1748.
In 1765, at the age of 18, he started painting under François Boucher, his distant cousin (who had been master to Fragonard about 15 years earlier). David worked under Boucher for about a year, and then worked under Joseph-Marie Vien.
Boucher was famous and taught David the fashionable rococo, but Vien, a lesser painter, painted in the neoclassical style, which was a newer and growing development in art. Neoclassical sought to meaningfully portray dignity, nobility, and heroism, whereas rococo was primarily frivolous and pretty.
David applied four times for the Prix de Rome, the famous scholarship from the French Academy to study in Rome. He finally won the fourth year, but by the time he won, the defeats had already brewed up in him a great displeasure in the official art establishment.
In 1775, David went to Italy. He was enthralled by the ancient world sights and artefacts he came across. He returned to Paris in 1780 and quickly became leader of the neoclassical school of artists.
The contrast between David’s neoclassical art and the whimsical rococo brought David great support and success nearing the French Revolution. In 1785, The Oath of the Horatii was exhibited at the Paris Salon, the very important exhibition put on by the French Academy. Everyone loved David’s painting. It had an excellent theme for a population heading towards revolution. The Oath of the Horatii depicts three sons swearing an oath on their swords, held high by their father, that they will defend Rome to their death.
The Paris Salon of 1789 opened after the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution. David’s The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons had been banned by the royal court because of its revolution-supporting theme. It portrays a grieving Roman leader having condemned his sons to death for the sake of his country. The public protested enough so that it was allowed to exhibit, but art students kept constant guard of it to protect it from the king’s supporters.
Jacques-Louis David joined the revolutionary parliament called the “National Convention” and voted for the king's execution in 1793.
When the famous revolutionary, and David’s good friend, Jean-Paul Marat was murdered in his bathtub, David was commissioned by the parliament to paint him as a martyr, and he did. The Death of Marat became one of his masterpieces.
After the French Revolution, David was in charge of the world of French art: what art was taught in schools and shown in museums, and he made sure it all supported revolutionary ideas. He also had the French Academy closed down, claiming it was against the republic ideals of democracy and equality, and that it encouraged snobbery.
The Reign of Terror, during which suspected counter-revolutionaries were guillotined, ended in 1794. David was put in prison for his involvement in the Terror. He risked being guillotined himself but, instead, was released after six months.
Post-Revolution, Jacques-Louis David became Napoleon’s official painter. His art glamorised Napoleon’s heroism, the success of his military campaigns, and the splendour of his court. For example, his Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass is a portrait of Bonaparte crossing the Alps on his way to do battle. Napoleon had actually done it on a mule, but David painted him proudly sitting on a horse.
In 1816, after Napoleon was ousted from power, David had to leave France into exile because he had publicly stated that he would become an enemy of the state if Napoleon were ever removed from power. He went to Belgium.
By this time, neoclassicism was going out of style, and the romantic era was coming in.
In February 1824, Jacques-Louis David was run into by a horse-drawn cab while walking home from the theatre. He died from his injuries almost a year later, on Dec. 29, 1825.
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