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A fact that he never forgot, Pierre-Jean David d'Angers rose to eminence with considerable help, over the objections of his father, a modest woodcarver in Angers, who felt the arts had few true friends and offered no secure livelihood or glory to the deserving. He was born in 1788. After working in his father's shop, he studied drawing in Angers with painter Jean-Jacques Delusse (1757-1833), who subsidized his move in 1808 to Paris for more ambitious training. That very same year he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts as a student of sculptor Philippe-Laurent Roland (1747-1816) but also trained with Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). As a result of his outstanding work there, his Ecole masters secured a pension for him from his native city, thus freeing the youth from the outside architectural work he had taken on to survive. In 1811 David won the Prix de Rome. To show his gratitude for its financial support, he dubbed himself "David d'Angers" after his birthplace, though he signed his works simply "David." The young sculptor's lifelong vision of his art began to emerge at the Villa Medici. He opted against Canova's sensuous forms for the painter David's revolutionary icons, thus setting a more austere artistic course than fellow pensionnaire James Pradier.
David's career was launched with two major public projects, following his Roman tenure and a visit to London in 1816: the Grand Condé for what is now the Pont de la Concorde in Paris (1816-1827, marble destroyed; plaster, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers), a royal commission inherited from Roland upon the latter's death; and the tomb of General Bonchamps for a fellow Angevin (1816-1825, abbey church, Saint-Florent-le-Vieil), a national subscription. Institutional honors immediately followed: the cross of the Légion d'Honneur in 1825, election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and appointment to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts the following year. David's marriage in 1831 proved as important to his career as these honors and influential positions. His wife's considerable wealth enabled him to pursue his profession with fewer material constraints than most sculptors.
David became the pre-eminent monument-maker of the 1830s and 1840s, producing statues of great men for a variety of patrons and sites throughout France and abroad. To note only a few: his Greek Girl for Marco Botzaris' tomb at Missolonghi (1827, plaster; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers); the tomb of General Foy (1827-1831, marble; Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris); and the Gutenberg (1837-1840, bronze; Place Gutenberg, Strasbourg). A masterful sculptor in bas-relief as well, David produced many throughout his career. The most famous is the pedimental decoration for the Panthéon in Paris (1830-1837). His portrait busts of men and women from all over the world were celebrated, and his small-scale portrait medallions provided their many owners a famous portable museum of illustrious individuals from the remote past as well as from their lifetime.
The sculptor's political activism, as a liberal democrat, shaped his mature career and ultimately drew severe official censure. Once established professionally, David d'Angers participated openly in opposition activities: He was a pallbearer at the funeral of a major opposition leader, General Foy, in 1827, and fought against the Bourbons in the July Revolution of 1830. David repeatedly sought political office and achieved it after the Revolution of 1848. He was elected mayor of a district in Paris in 1848 and then served as a deputy from his native Maine-et-Loire in the Constituent Assembly. For his opposition to Louis-Napoléon's coup d'état in 1851, the sixty-year-old David was exiled for a year. A stroke forced him to stop working in 1855, and he died one year later. Despite heavy censorship, the sculptor's funeral turned into a liberal demonstration. The imperial government retaliated by refusing to buy David's works and attempting to erase his memory.
Considered a leader of the French school of the 1830s, along with Ingres and Delacroix, David provided an influential model of the liberal artist-citizen in those complex decades. His social vision was broadly humanitarian and anti-despotic. As a mark of that ethical stance, despite his own republican politics, he found exemplary virtue in many royal and royalist subjects. Like some engaged artists of 1793, David donated his works to liberal causes, such as the previously mentioned figure for Greek freedom fighter Botzaris' tomb, or to national subscriptions for monuments of worthy modern heroes of France, such as Renaissance surgeon Ambroise Paré. His unquestioned loyalty and service to France often prevented harsh criticism by the government. Despite the controversy over the liberal heroes he included in the Panthéon pediment--a government project--the July Monarchy authorities continued to commission provincial monuments from David and to provide generous funds to national subscriptions for projects to which he contributed the model.
David's artistic mission to "pay society's debt," particularly to its modern heroes, was complex and ambitious. For the artist, sculpture rivaled historical writing for a broad public in its aim to immortalize or resurrect great humans, as historian Jules Michelet intended through his own work. David was also obsessed with the sheer power of the word to communicate abstractions, prompt meditation, and establish social contracts. Though superficially focused on heroic figures, his oeuvre was intended as physical matter that conveyed moral ideals and spiritual qualities. Towards that end David's monuments deployed an often innovative vocabulary of expressive physiognomy, gesture, and attributes, at times with a complement of narrative reliefs and extensive inscriptions. Literal truth was often sacrificed to expressive ends in his work. A preoccupation with physiognomics and phrenology alone led to expressive alterations of the human form that were often not understood in their day and still elude interpretation.
Masterful as sculptural form, his projects were influential, controversial, and reflected no easily defined "style." In fact, his art served as an international benchmark in modern sculpture for artists and critics of his time. His approach to the portrait statue varied according to his chosen characterization. The Grand Condé's romantic, "stormy" energy contrasts with the classicism of the iconic, meditative Racine and the assertive, oratorical Foy. David's Child with Grapes (1845, Musée du Louvre, Paris) presents a Canova-esque lyrical study of naive childplay. However, the artist's handling of monumental reliefs shifted en bloc: from an early Goujonesque treatment of atmospheric, graduated planes, to a later dense arrangement of angular figures, starkly differentiated from a flat, blank ground--a blend of the abstract classical relief and the popular woodblock print.
David eschewed commercial serialization except in his portrait medallions and the handful of portrait statues that he permitted to be edited without his direct supervision. Instead, he reproduced his works in engravings for wide distribution, either as albums or as inclusions in brochures or books on the subject of the monument. While a student at the Ecole, David began giving examples of his oeuvre to his native Angers, a policy continued by his heirs into this century. Now housed in the dramatic former abbey church adjacent to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, of which it forms part, the Galerie David d'Angers permits a unique review, in one location, of the artist's entire output.
As a teacher in the 1830s and an intellectual leader and major force in cultural politics into the 1850s, David was immensely influential. Though competitive and self-interested at times, he championed struggling artists throughout his career, providing genuine friendship and even funerals for the most ill-fated. He published extensively on modern art and political history. Only now is his intellectual thought being seriously analyzed. Its impact is still elusive, though David's correspondence and the prolific critical literature about him during his lifetime, positive and negative, suggest it was significant. However, like his actions and his art, David's views are often inconsistent and self-justifying, affirming his probing, if self-aware, intellectualism and complexity as a "modern" human being.
[This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]