Jacques-Louis David was one of the most well-known painters of the Neoclassical era and his work has become a ubiquitous symbol of the French revolution and the age of Napoleon. From depictions of democratic revolution to commissions from both monarchs old and new; David managed to navigate the political turmoil of the French revolution and come out the other side with his reputation intact, something few of his compatriots were able to achieve.
However, to think that David was just a painter, who skilfully rode the wave of political upheaval as a passenger, is to underestimate the central role he played in the events of the Revolution. Far beyond his work as a painter, David’s ability to survive when many of his friends had fallen, was a testament to his importance as a political thinker, leader, and educator. David not only depicted the times in which he lived, but he was a driving force behind them as well.
It is important to understand how Jacques-Louis David came to be so highly regarded among his peers. It goes without saying that his painterly skill was central to his rise to fame. However, it was clear that he had aspirations beyond simply being a great painter himself. He attended the Royal Academy at the Louvre and eventually won the Prix-de-Rome, which each year went to a young French painter deemed the most promising talent by the Academy.
He became increasingly interested in Greco-Roman influences, ancient art, architecture, and way of life. This was in part due to the cultural impact of the discovery of the city of Pompeii in 1748, which tragically succumbed to Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. His art increasingly depicted scenes from antiquity, leading to the introduction of Neoclassicism.
David also mixed with important and influential members of society from an early age. David was enrolled as a student at the College des Quatres Nations, in Paris, where he got to know Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier who went on to become a leading scientist and chemist.
It was through this network that David emerged as a notable figure with political aspirations. Yet while his political involvement may have begun merely as an effort to influence this aspect of the world, his political interests soon expanded beyond this – particularly as the tide began to turn, and revolution ensued.
Jacques-Louis David was chosen by the leaders of the Revolution to depict the moment at which their uprising had begun in earnest. David himself had been present at the Tennis Court, just a short walk from the Palace of Versailles, which already suggests that he was a man as interested in the politics of his age, as he was in its art.
Because of the rapid nature of events that followed, David never actually finished this painting. Many of its figures, joined in patriotic unity at the time of the oath, were soon fighting against each other. Differing political ideologies flew around in the hope of leading the new revolutionary government.
While known predominantly as a painter, Jacques-Louis David’s powerful patriotic fervor meant he would be of use to the Revolutionary government in a number of other ways. He had a penchant for theatrical staging and designed many of the great public spectacles put on by the new government. These were organized to demonstrate the power of the new government and instill the values of the new French state.
Between the years of 1789 and 1794, David orchestrated many of the capital’s most extravagant public displays. These included the Procession of Voltaire’s ashes to the Parthenon, The Festival of Unity and Indivisibility, and the Festival of the Federation.
He even designed the outfits that he and the National Assembly planned would be worn by the people of Paris in their new republic. Their obvious references to the Greco-Roman classical style, which had played such an important role in his earlier paintings, show that David understood the power of visual references in instilling political values.
It was through his close ties to governmental figures such as Robespierre, that David would go on to sit in their newly elected parliament.
However, Jacques-Louis David was not afraid to extend his political voice beyond the realms of managing the new state’s artistic endeavors. He spoke passionately on a number of topics, despite a speech impediment of which he was very embarrassed, and which caused him ridicule.
David was also elected as President of the Jacobin Club, which was one of the leading parties among those vying for power in the wake of the King’s death.
In 1792, Jacques-Louis David was elected as the Deputy for Paris to the National Assembly and made Associate Professor of the Academy. In this position, and rather ironically (as a teacher and academician himself) he successfully campaigned for the suppression and closure of the nation’s academic institutions.
He went on to become a member of the blood-thirsty Committee for General Security, who made decisions as to the fate of those citizens of France deemed to be against the revolution and who were subsequently sent in their thousands to the guillotine.
His sketches of Marie-Antoinette and later his close friend, Robespierre, on their way to the guillotine are demonstrations of the extent to which the violence that had swept through revolutionary Paris. More importantly, however, they serve as a testament to David’s ability to use his position as a great painter to avoid the fate shared by those with whom he had previously worked so closely.
Eventually, Jacques-Louis David’s central role in the revolution caught up with him and he did not escape completely without punishment. After the fall of King Louis XVI, Robespierre rose to power. His reign was dubbed the Reign of Terror. During this time, David found himself right next to Robespierre as a “dictator of art”. David found himself with incredible power he didn’t possess before.
For example, he was housed at one point in the rather luxury confines of the Palais du Luxembourg, with views out over the gardens. He depicted the view from his window during this time and was even allowed to continue to paint portraits and commissions for wealthy survivors of the Revolution while he did his time.
When he was released from prison, Jacques-Louis David quickly found himself back in the employ of the establishment. The charismatic army general, Napoleon Bonaparte had risen to dominance and was keen to make the most of David’s creative prowess to stamp his own mark on the French nation. In 1799, Napoleon appointed David as his court painter. David painted one of his most famous images: Napoleon Crossing the Saint-Bernard or Napoleon Crossing the Alps in 1804.
David’s depiction of Napoleon’s coronation is one of his most well-known artworks. He had been present at the coronation, in order to make sketches for what would become one of his most monumental works. He eventually finished the painting two years later, after many months of preparation. This included having a replica set built in his studio of the section of Notre-Dame cathedral in which the ceremony took place.
However, it is a lesser-known fact that David took a lead role as an art advisor to Napoleon’s and his council. David had in fact tried to convince Napoleon to give him a position in control of the arts more broadly, in charge of monuments, art education, and even design-based industries such as the nation’s booming textile trade.
Throughout his life, Jacques-Louis David also took on a less controversial role. He was a teacher and mentor to many of the generation of artists who followed him. One of his most famous pupils was Dominique Auguste Ingres, whom he painted a portrait of when Ingres was under his tutorage.
After the fall of Napoleon, David’s involvement in the revolution had finally caught up with him. Alongside Napoleon in 1815, David found himself exiled from his home. He lived in Brussels until he died in 1825, never returning to France. Jacques Louis David’s paintings were lifeless at this point, only making art when commissioned.
David died in 1826, by which point he and his family had still not been able to reconcile with the French government, particularly with regards to his political role earlier in his life. For the government of the day, it was not possible to separate David the politician and David the painter. As such, his family was refused the right to have his remains buried in Paris. He was finally laid to rest at the Brussels Cemetery on the outskirts of Brussels in October of that year.
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