Jacques-Louis David: 10 Things To Know On The Epic Painter

The paintings of Jacques-Louis David define an era. This article unpacks everything you need to know about the life and artwork of France’s most epic painter.

Apr 3, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, Jacques-Louis David, via Wikimedia
The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, Jacques-Louis David, via Wikimedia


The epic artwork of Jacques-Louis David placed him at the forefront of French culture at a critical point in time: the tumult of the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon are reflected in his work. David initiated the shift away from the frivolity of the Rococo style towards the dignified grandeur of Neoclassicism, making him a key figure in the history of European art.


10. The Young Jacques-Louis David Was Anti-Social

Self-portrait, David, 1794, via Arthive


Born in 1748, Jacques-Louis David began his life in the upper echelons of Parisian society, but his life would be transformed by a dramatic series of events. At the age of nine, his father was killed in a duel and he was abandoned by his mother, who left him to live with his uncles. Fortunately for the young David, these uncles happened to be successful architects, and under their guidance, he received not only an excellent education but also a detailed understanding of form and design.


At school, David was known to spend all his time filling sketch-pads with drawings. He refused to pay attention to his lessons, and shunned the company of his classmates, perhaps because of the facial disfigurations that impeded his speech and, no doubt, his social life.


A photomechanical print of Jacques-Louis David, via The Smithsonian


David had a deep scar on his cheek that made it difficult for him to eat, speak or even move the left side of his face, as well as a benign tumor that brought about the cruel nickname ‘David of the Tumor’. Perhaps it is no wonder that this young man turned inwards, losing himself in his own drawings. He soon informed his uncles, who were hoping that he would follow in their footsteps as an architect, that he was going to be a painter.

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9. Jacques-Louis David’s Artistic Education Was No Less Unstable

One of the paintings that failed to win the Prix de Rome. The Death of Seneca, David, 1773, via Web Gallery of Art


Finally conceding to his pleas, David’s uncles sent him to train under the prominent French artist, François Boucher, to whom they were distantly related. Boucher was a famed Rococo painter, but the young David must have shown an immediate opposition to the flamboyant genre, since he was soon sent off to another painter, Joseph-Marie Vien. Vien proved more in tune with David’s style, being at the forefront of the Neoclassical movement that was emerging as a reaction against the Rococo movement.


After forming a foundation under Vien, David went on to attend the Royal Academy, determined to win its prestigious Prix de Rome. This prize provided one student a year with the money to fund an extended trip to Rome, where he could spend between 3 and 5 years. David entered the contest four years in a row; each time he produced fantastic artwork, but each time he failed to win. David was indignant and even went on a hunger strike to protest against the injustice of the decisions. Only in his fifth year did he, at last, succeed in winning the coveted prize.


8. His Early Travels Had A Great Impact On The Young David

The Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David, 1784, via The Louvre


David traveled to Italy with Vien, who was appointed the director of the French Academy at Rome, and spent many years there. He studied the important Renaissance artists and was particularly inspired by the sense of drama and theatricality he saw in the paintings of Caravaggio, as well as the clarity of form which characterized the work of Raphael. He filled twelve sketchbooks with drawings of antiquities, ancient statues and classical buildings, sketches which he would continue to return to throughout his career.


The trip also gave David the opportunity to expand his network of connections. On his travels he met with many prominent artists, the most significant of whom was Raphael Mengs. Of all the 18th century painters, Mengs can be said to have turned the tide from the Rococo to the Neoclassical. He insisted that artistic perfection could only be achieved through the rigorous study of ancient principles and aesthetic theories. Mengs’ influence can be seen in David’s early paintings, which show strict adherence to classical models.


7. His Work Immediately Won Him Great Renown

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore, David, 1773-1775, via Christie’s


Even though he had gained a reputation for being anti-social and aloof, David’s work was still greeted with praise by his peers. After returning to Paris in 1780, he was elected as a member of the Royal Academy and two of his paintings were displayed in the Academy’s 1781 Salon. These caught the attention of King Louis XVI, who awarded David lodgings in the Louvre itself.


His new status came with a crowd of eager followers, and David took on around 50 pupils, several of whom would become prominent artists in their own right. Some of them even traveled with David and his family as they journeyed back to Rome in search of more artistic inspiration.


6. Politics Is A Constant Theme Throughout David’s Work

A sketch for The Tennis Court Oath, David, 1791, via Art Media/Heritage Images


wThe political turmoil of the 18th and 19th centuries brought David both challenges and opportunities alike. Although he had received the favor of Louis XVI, the last king of the Ancient Regime, David was an avid supporter of the French Revolution. This is reflected in several of his most powerful paintings, which capture the rebellious passion and zealous determination of the revolutionaries. Artworks such as The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons and The Oath of the Horatii have explicitly republican themes, embodying the values of civic virtue and freedom.


He also depicted real scenes from the revolution itself, such as The Tennis Court Oath, which shows the revolutionaries vowing to establish a new republic. Significantly, the painting is unfinished, since the sense of unity symbolized by the oath no longer existed in the early 1790s, when David was working on the piece. The volatility of French politics at the time made it difficult to find one universal and lasting ideology that could be captured in a single image.


One of David’s most famous paintings, The Death of Marat, also reflects actual events, namely the assassination of the revolutionary leader, Jean-Paul Marat. David’s masterpiece, painted shortly after the murder, succeeded in transforming Marat into a martyr, immortalizing him as the image of revolutionary suffering and sacrifice.


5. David Was Responsible For Several Paintings Of Napoleon

Bonaparte Crossing the Great St Bernard Pass, David, 1801, via Foundation Napoleon


As one of the foremost figures in French art, David had the opportunity to associate with Napoleon Bonaparte, who was determined to make his country the epicenter of European culture. David first sketched Napoleon in 1797, but this initial work was never completed. Napoleon admired David’s skill, nonetheless, and asked him to accompany his envoy to Egypt as its official artist. Remarkably, David refused the offer.


Following his success at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, Napoleon commissioned David to produce an epic painting to commemorate his crossing of the Alps, which would show the ruler “calm upon a fiery steed”. David produced the iconic masterpiece, Bonaparte Crossing the Great St Bernard Pass, which won him the position of official court painter under the Napoleonic regime.


The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame, Jacques-Louis David, (1805-1807), via Wikimedia


Another prestigious painting was The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame, which saw some incredibly eminent figures coming to David’s studio to sit as models. Among them was the Empress Joséphine and Pope Pius VII, both of whom appear in the final painting. When Napoleon saw the canvas, he is said to have stared at it for an hour before turning to the artist and saying, “David, I salute you”. Such high praise was reinforced by the huge payment of 24,000 francs which David received for his efforts.


4. But The Royal Favor Was Not Destined To Last

Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces, David, 1824, via Web Gallery of Art


After the collapse of the Napoleonic regime, David found himself out of favor with the newly restored Bourbon monarchy. And yet King Louis XVIII offered him amnesty, inviting him to resume his place as court painter. In his typically recalcitrant manner, however, David refused. He took himself and his family off to Brussels in self-imposed exile, where he continued to teach art.


He painted his final works during his years in Belgium, producing many portraits of local citizens, as well as a few mythological scenes. His last great work was Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces, which he completed in 1824, a year before his death. Even though the painting attracted huge crowds and earnt David vast sums of money, it was generally considered inferior to his earlier works, lacking the passion and vibrancy of his revolutionary paintings.


3. Jacques-Louis David’s Style Came To Epitomize His Era

The Death of Marat, David, 1793, via Web Gallery of Art


Jacques-Louis David was truly an era-defining artist. His rich, dynamic and powerful paintings embody the ‘Empire style’ that emerged under Napoleon. Rejecting the frivolous and feminine flourishes of the Rococo, David channeled the classical principles of harmony, simplicity and grandeur that he had picked up in Rome. His images convey a clear message of heroism, virtue and bravery, which put him at the head of the Neoclassical movement that would develop throughout the 19th century.


2. His Students Upheld His Legacy

Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, Ingres, 1806, via the Khan Academy


In addition to his many masterpieces, David left behind a number of important students. Among them were Antoine-Jean Gros, who was made a Baron by Napoleon, Jean-Germain Drouais, who came from a line of prestigious portrait painters, and Pieter van Hanselaere, who helped spread the Neoclassical movement in his native Belgium. Some of his pupils were even recruited to assist David in his more significant projects, responsible for the peripheral designs on larger canvases.


By far the most important of David’s pupils, however, was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who would go on to become the figurehead of the Neoclassical movement. Ingres’ work owes much to the influence of David, who inspired the younger artist to channel the values of classical art and to focus on meaning rather than empty embellishment. The artwork produced by Ingres during the 19th century helped to secure his mentor’s legacy.


1. The Work Of Jacques-Louis David Is Highly Sought After By Collectors

Alexander, Apelles and Campaspe, David, 1812, via Sotheby’s


Jacques-Louis David is universally recognized as one of France’s most important artists, and a key figure in the history of European art. This prestigious position is reflected in the value of his paintings, which have sold at auction for millions.


In 1986, his Portrait of Ramel de Nogaret sold at Christie’s for $7,209,000, while The Distribution of the Eagle Standards reached $2,535,000. At Sotheby’s his drawings were also recognized as remarkable, with his Drawing of Alexander, Apelles and Campaspe selling for £657,250 in 2009, and a sketch of classical soldiers, a study for the figure of Tatius, reaching $401,000. These staggering sums demonstrate the continued significance of David’s work in the canon of European art.

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By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.