Jacques-Louis David 1748 – 1825

A French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward classical austerity and severity and heightened feeling.

David later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximillian Robespierre (1758–1794), and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release: that of Napoleon, The First Consul of France.

At this time he developed his Empire style, notable for its use of warm Venetian colours. After Napoleon’s fall from Imperial power and the Bourbon revival, David exiled himself to Brussels, then in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, where he remained until his death. David had a large number of pupils, making him the strongest influence in French art of the early 19th century, especially academic Salon painting.

In addition to his history paintings, David completed a number of privately commissioned portraits. Warren Roberts, among others, has pointed out the contrast between David’s “public style” of painting, as shown in his history paintings, and his “private style”, as shown in his portraits. His portraits were characterized by a sense of truth and realism. He focused on defining his subjects’ features and characters without idealizing them.

This is different from the style seen in his historical paintings, in which he idealizes his figures’ features and bodies to align with Greek and Roman ideals of beauty. He puts a great deal of detail into his portraits, defining smaller features like hands and fabric. The compositions of his portraits remain simple with blank backgrounds that allow the viewer to focus on the details of the subject.

In the painting of Brutus (1789), the man and his wife are separated, both morally and physically. Paintings like these, depicting the great strength of patriotic sacrifice, made David a popular hero of the revolution.

Other portraits include paintings of his sister-in-law and her husband, Madame and Monsieur Seriziat. The picture of Monsieur Seriziat depicts a man of wealth, sitting comfortably with his horse-riding equipment. The picture of the Madame shows her wearing an unadorned white dress, holding her young child’s hand as they lean against a bed. David painted these portraits of Madame and Monsieur Seriziat out of gratitude for letting him stay with them after he was in jail.

When David was leaving a theatre, a carriage struck him, and he later died, on 29 December 1825.   Jacques-Louis David was buried in Brussels and moved in 1882 to Brussels Cemetery, while some say his heart was buried with his wife at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

Despite David’s reputation, he was more fiercely criticized right after his death than at any point during his life. His style came under the most serious criticism for being static, rigid, and uniform throughout all his work. David’s art was also attacked for being cold and lacking warmth. In the last 50 years David has enjoyed a revival in popular favour and in 1948 his two-hundredth birthday was celebrated with an exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and at Versailles showing his life’s works.


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