Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris in 1748, the son of an iron merchant who was killed in a duel (an unusual circumstance in his social class), when the boy was nine years old. His mother, Geneviève Buron, came of a family of builders and architects and was distantly related to the painter François Boucher (1703-1770). Under the guardianship of uncles on his mother's side, Louis received a sound classical education. His guardians wished to train him as an architect, but he insisted on being allowed to study painting. Following the advice of Boucher, he was placed in the studio of Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), the leading promoter of the neoclassical reaction against the rococo. David's student work, strikingly rococo at first, was slow in adjusting to the ascendancy of classicism. He competed four times for the Rome Prize, beginning in 1771 with an awkward pastiche of Boucher (Battle between Mars and Minerva, Louvre); failing again in 1772 with Diana and Apollo Killing the Children of Niobe (lost), which enraged him to the point of threatening suicide; and still unsuccessful in his third try in 1773 (Death of Seneca, PetitPal). His fourth attempt, Antiochus and Stratonice (1774, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris), finally won him the prize and gave the first indication of his turning to classicism. In Rome from 1775 to 1780, the overwhelming impression of the masters of the Italian High Renaissance and early baroque caused him to purge his work radically of all traces of the modern "French," that is, rococo, manner. A visit to Naples in 1779 completed his conversion. Belisarius Begging Alms (1780, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lille), begun in Rome but finished after David's return to Paris, sums up, in the calm grandeur of its composition and the subdued harmonies of its colors, the gains of his Italian stay. Reports of his talent had preceded him to Paris. The French Academy hastened to admit him with the rank of associate. At the Salon of 1781 the exhibition of his Italian canvases produced a strong impression on critics and public. His marriage in 1782 to Charlotte Pécoul, daughter of the supervisor of royal buildings, brought him influence and financial security. Sponsored by Vien, he was admitted to full academy membership the following year, offering as his reception piece Andromache Mourning Hector (Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris). With its antique weapons, furniture, and architectural ornaments, it was the most consciously "Greek" of his works to this time.
Awarded a royal commission to execute a painting on the subject of Horatius Defending His Son Before the People for the Salon of 1783, David delayed work on the project and, on his own responsibility, changed its subject to the Oath of the Horatii. Deciding that he could carry it out only in Rome, David traveled to Italy with financial help from his father-in-law and there finished the picture in eleven months. Exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1785, its Spartan severity excited general admiration and founded David's reputation as France's foremost painter. He followed this success with a private commission for the financier Trudaine, The Death of Socrates (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which won praise at the Salon of 1787. His entry in 1789, Brutus in the Atrium of His House, after the Execution of His Sons (Louvre), based on a play by Voltaire, was, like the Horatii, a royal commission, but its moral lesson--that family ties must yield to the demands of patriotism--was stated with an unyielding hardness that foretold the Terror.
Without professing any political ideology, David's pre-Revolutionary paintings merely celebrated civic virtue, but with a vehemence that later made them adaptable to partisan rhetoric. Though little is known of his opinions before 1789, there can be no doubt that he greeted the Revolution with enthusiasm and constantly supported its most radical causes. His political activity was at first confined to the Academy, in which he became the leader of a dissident faction of junior members. By enlisting the aid of the Commune of Paris, then of the National Assembly, and finally of the Jacobin Club, he managed to dismantle the privileges of the academy one by one and, as a member of the Committee of Public Instruction in 1793, obtained the decree that abolished it altogether. An admirer and friend of Robespierre,, he voted for the beheading of the king and the queen (January and October 1793) and briefly presided over the Convention. During his years of Revolutionary activity, he did not produce moralizing history paintings, such as might be expected from an artist-legislator. His first service to the Revolution was to commemorate the Oath in the Tennis Court at the request of a Jacobin club in 1790. His drawing (Louvre) of that crucial meeting of the Third Estate in an indoor tennis court at Versailles, exhibited at the Salon of 1791, was to have been executed in a large painting paid for by public subscription, but the scheme failed and the canvas remained unfinished. As the leading member of the Committee of Public Instruction, David was in fact, though not in title, Robespierre's minister of the arts, to whom it fell to plan the huge national pageants that were the Revolution's chief means of mass indoctrination. He designed their settings of artificial mountains, symbolic sculptures, and monumental altars, sketched the costumes and organized the ceremonial for the Translation of Voltaire's Ashes to the Pantheon (1791), the celebration of the Mutinous Swiss Guards (1792), the Festival of Brotherhood (1793), and the Feast of the Supreme Being (1794), and volunteered to paint the memorial portraits of the Revolution's "martyrs"--Lepelletier de Saint-Fargeau (1793, lost), Marat (1793, Musées Royaux, Brussels), and Barra (unfinished, Musée Calvet, Avignon).
When Robespierre fell in July 1794, David was denounced as "tyrant of the arts" and had to defend himself before the hostile Convention. Though he had earlier vowed, recalling Socrates, to "drink the hemlock" with his leader, he lost his nerve, lamely exculpated himself, and was spared the guillotine. Imprisoned for several months in 1794 and again in 1795, he was amnestied at the time of the establishment of the Directory. Feeling betrayed and blameless, he withdrew from the pitfalls of politics into the innocence of art: he felt the Revolution had distracted him from his true vocation, classical history painting. The years between Robespierre's fall (1794) and Bonaparte's rise (1799) were his interlude of artistic independence between two political engagements, a time to concentrate on matters of form and style.
While still in prison, his thoughts turned again to themes from antiquity. Among them he found one that was applicable to France's present situation, the Sabine Women Stopping the Battle between Romans and Sabiner (Louvre), a scene of reconciliation. The picture, which occupied him from 1795 to 1799, marked a change in his attitude toward classicism. His earlier paintings, he now believed, were too harshly "Roman" and too physical in their display of muscular anatomies. In the Sabines he aimed instead for "Greek" purity. He disposed its main figures in a wide frieze, stripped them bare, and defined their smooth and slender bodies with clean contours. He exploited this refined classical manner in portraits of fashion leaders of post-Revolutionary society, among them those of Mme Verninac (1799, Louvre) and Mme Récamier (1800, Louvre). Impoverished after years without adequate income, he made his peace with the new order. When the academy, which he had helped to abolish, was reestablished under a new name, he immediately became a member. At the same time, he organized his studio as a place of instruction through which in time some four hundred students passed, causing it to become, identified simply as "the French School," a dominant force in European art for several decades.
David first met Bonaparte in the winter of 1797 on the latter's return from his Italian victories. David was eager to ally himself with the hero of the hour, and Bonaparte, already preparing his ascent to power, sensed that the master propagandist might prove of future use. A life-size portrait was begun but remained unfinished. A closer relationship developed in 1799, after Napoleon, now titled First Consul, had become the dictator of France. In Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at the Saint-Bernard (1801; Versailles and studio repetitions), David celebrated the victo of Marengo, "calm on a fiery horse," as Bonaparte himself had specified. When Napoleon made himself emperor of France in 1804, he appointed David his First Painter and commissioned him to commemorate the empire's inaugural ceremonies in four paintings of very large size. Only two, the Coronation and the Presentation of the Standards, were executed, before David's insistent demands for money and administrative power so irritated the emperor that he canceled the project. David had witnessed the coronation in the choir of Notre Dame. In striving to give artistic form to a scene from modern life, he put aside his classicist preferences and followed the example of Rubens' Coronation of Maria de Médici (Louvre). His innate realism was roused by the ceremonial: he found that crimson velvet and gold braid, though repugnant to strict classicists, "offered opportunities to a painter," as did the pomp of monarchy to a former revolutionary. A masterly composition of splendid, painterly execution, David's Coronation (1805-1808, Louvre) remains the summit of modern history painting. The second canvas in the series, Presentation of the Standards (1808-1810, Versailles), which records the armies' homage to the emperor, proved less successful. After its exhibition at the Salon of 1810, David received no further state commissions. Lacking official employment, he reverted to classical subjects of his own choice, taking up again a monumental canvas, Leonidas at the Pass of Thermopylae (1812-1814, Louvre), that he had begun under the Consulate in 1799 but abandoned at Napoleon's prompting. At sixty-two, he was beginning to show signs of weariness. The robustly modern realism and the delight in fresh colors that Napoleon's commissions had stimulated hereafter found an outlet only in portraits, notable among them the National Gallery's Napoleon in His Study (1961.9.15), the private commission of a francophile Briton.
After Napoleon's first abdication in April 1814 and the restoration of Louis XVIII, David remained undisturbed and was able to arrange a private exhibition of his Leonidas. In March 1815 Napoleon returned from Elba, swept away the Bourbon court, and reconfirmed David as First Painter. David now signed a declaration of loyalty to Napoleon--an act of courage, since he foresaw the emperor's ultimate defeat. On the reinstatement of Louis XVIII after Waterloo, David was banished from France, together with other regicides who had opted for Napoleon. He settled in Brussels in 1816 and, at sixty-eight, prepared for a new life. The portraits he painted in these last years prove his sense of composition and vigor of execution to have been almost undiminished. Not so his renewed attempts at classical subjects that, now entirely without ideological relevance, took the form of ingratiating erotic mythologies--among them Cupid and Psyche (1817, The Cleveland Museum of Art) and David's disastrous swan song, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces (1824, Musées Royaux, Brussels). Preceded by much publicity, this painting, when shown in Brussels and Paris to more than twenty thousand paying visitors, dismayed both friends and foes by its feebleness. David ended his days in bourgeois comfort in Brussels, cared for by affectionate pupils and friends. A heart ailment brought on his death in December 1825. The revolutionary who had stage-managed the pagan funerals of Lepelletier and Marat was borne in solemn cortège to the church of Sainte-Gudule and given a Christian burial. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Stay up to date about our exhibitions, news, programs, and special offers.
4th St and Constitution Ave NW
6th St and Constitution Ave NW
7th St and Constitution Ave NW
11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m. daily
The Sculpture Garden will open on Saturday, June 20, with limitations. The East and West Buildings are currently closed to the public. All on-site events are canceled through December 31, 2020. Learn More.