1902 Encyclopedia > Jacques Louis David

Jacques Louis David
French painter

DAVID, JACQUES LOUIS (1748-1825), historical painter, was born in Paris in 1748. His father having been killed in a duel, a maternal uncle first placed him in the College des Quatre-Nations and afterwards in an architect’s office. An accidental visit to the studio of his great-uncle, Boucher, led him to leave his adopted profession; and Boucher, observing the boy’s distaste for his own erotic style, sent him to Vien, who, having succeeded to the directorship of the French Academy in Rome just at the time his pupil had taken the grand prize (1775), carried the youth with him to that city. At this time Winckelmann was writing, Raphael Mengs painting, and the taste for classic severity was a necessary reaction on what had gone before. This is shown by Carstens and the younger Germans very shortly after following a quite in- dependent movement of the same nature. David’s classicism was directly derived from the antique, and easily under-stood. The spirit of the day made the first picture, "Date Obolum Belisario," painted according to his new principles, a complete success, and this was followed by others more perfect—The Grief of Andromache, The Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates, and The Rape of the Sabine Women, now in the Louvre. In the French drama an unimaginative imitation of ancient models had long prevailed; even in art Poussin and Le Sueur were successful by expressing a bias in the same direction; and in the first years of the revolutionary movement, the fashion of imitat-ing the ancients even in dress and manners went to the most extravagant length. At this very time David returned to Paris; he was now painter to the king, Louis XVI., who had been the purchaser of his principal works. It is not possible to overestimate the popularity of the young painter, who was himself carried away by the flood of enthusiasm that made all the intellect of France believe in a new era of equality and emancipation from all the ills of life.

Sent to the Convention in September 1792, by the Section du Musée, he quickly distinguished himself by the defence of two French artists in Rome who had fallen into the merciless hands of the sbirri of the Inquisition; and as the behaviour of the authorities of the French Academy in Rome had been in obedience to old slavish ideas, he had the influence to get it suppressed. In January follow-ing his election into the Convention his vote was given for the king’s death. Thus the man who was so greatly indebted to the Roman Academy and to Louis XVI. assisted resolutely in the destruction of both. This line of action was no doubt a kind of self-sacrifice to him; it was in obedience to a principle, like the dreadful act of Brutus condemning his sons—a subject he painted with all his powers. Cato and Stoicism were the order of the day. Hitherto the actor had walked the stage in modern dress. Brutus had been applauded in red-heeled shoes and culottes jarretées; but Talma, advised by David, appeared in the toga and sandals before an enthusiastic audience. At this period of his life Mdlle. de Noailles thought to make a good impression upon him by insisting on his painting a sacred subject, with Jesus Christ as the hero. When the picture was done, the Saviour was found to be another Cato. "I told you so," he replied to the expostulations of the lady,—"there is no in-spiration in Christianity now!" He accordingly developed the scheme of the Fête à l’Etre Suprême, and he remained the master of pageants for a long period, escaping the guillotine only by the regard paid to his character as an artist. When Napoleon destroyed the new-found liberty, and ex-punged the novel gospel, David succumbed to the military spirit and well-nigh worshipped him. His picture of Napoleon on horseback pointing the way to Italy is now in Berlin

We have mentioned the principal classic subjects painted by David. They are hard and dry in execution, painted on a white ground with opaque but splendid colour, which has, however, really little charm. The other class of works which came from his easel was commemorative of the Re-volution. When Lepelletier was assassinated in the Palais Royal, after the vote for the death of the king, David painted the subject, and the picture was exhibited in the Convention with much emotion. Marat Dead in the Bath is a work of a very impressive kind. The Oath in the Tennis Court is another very important production, both historically and in relation to the artist. His exten-sive commissions from the emperor are still objects of attraction at Versailles. On the return of the Bourbons our painter was exiled with the other remaining regicides, and retired to Brussels, where he recommenced his classic series by the Loves of Paris and Helen. Here he remained till his death, 29th December 1825, at the age of seventy--seven, having rejected the offer made through Baron Hum-boldt of the office of minister of fine arts at Berlin. His end was true to his whole career and to his nationality. While dying, a print of the Leonidas, one, of his favourite subjects, was submitted to him. It was placed conveniently, and after vaguely looking at it a long time, "Il n'y a que moi qui pouvais concevoir la tête de Léonidas,"he whispered, and died. His friends and his party thought to carry the body back to his beloved Paris for burial, but the Government of the day arrested the procession at the frontier, an act which caused some scandal, and furnished the occasion of a terrible song of Beranger’s. Gros, Girodet, and Gérard were David’s best pupils.

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