Jacques-Louis David was born into an educated, prosperous Parisian family in 1748. In 1766 he entered the École Royale des Élèves Protégés, thanks to the recommendations of François Boucher, first painter to the king, and Jean-Marie Vien. The teachings of the latter, who was committed to a recovery of the French classical traditions and studies of antiquity, were extremely important to the young David, especially during his first sojourn in Rome. His early Parisian works are marked mainly by the influence of Boucher, the anti-classicist par excellence. Works such as Jupiter and Antiope (1767) and The Combat Between Minerva and Mars (1777) date from this period. He lived in Rome from 1775 to 1780 since he had won the French Academy’s Prix de Rome. It was there through “contact” with antiquities and his studies of seventeenth century Bolognese paintings and Caravaggio’s works that he definitively went beyond the Rococo experience. At the Villa Albani in Rome he met Mengs, author of Parnassus, that was considered the manifesto of the new manner of painting in the “old style”. But above all, he became friendly with Quatremère de Quincy, the archeologist and art critic who accompanied him to Naples in 1779. Upon his return to Paris he completed two paintings he had begun in Rome, Belisarius and the Portrait of Count Potocki (1780). The Belisarius was shown at the Salon in 1781 and met with immediate success, mainly because of its reference to the “great” paintings of Poussin and the use of pure, bright colors. In the coming years David painted many portraits according to Van Dyck’s models. He met with great success in 1785 when he exhibited The Oath of the Horatii at the Salon. This painting, that he did during a second sojourn in Rome, can be considered a turning point in the definition of the new Neoclassical style. The painting of Brutus and his Dead Sons, or The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, dates from 1789. Although the revolution had not yet begun, it earned David the title of painter of the Revolution. He worked on all sorts of projects, from decorations for celebrations to the reform of art teaching, to the protection and establishment of a large museum to educate the people. In 1791 he painted the Tennis Court Oath, and in 1793 the Death of Marat. David was briefly imprisoned after the Thermidor Reaction and following his release painted The Sabine Women (1799), that was a resounding success since it was interpreted as a proposal for reconciliation after the civil struggle. He soon began painting for Napoleon, starting with Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) that revolutionized the traditional equestrian portrait. Throughout the duration of the Empire David was Napoleon’s painter, and the most highly in demand among the imperial court. Between 1805 and 1807 he painted one of his demanding and complex works The Coronation of Napoleon. In 1815 he chose to go into exile in Belgium where he died in 1825. The time he spent in Brussels was highly productive: he painted a myriad of portraits and mythological subjects.
The Combat Between Minerva and Mars
David did this painting in 1771 for the competition for the Grand Prix of the Academy, and it brought him second place. That year the Academy had selected a subject based on canto XXI of the Iliad. Before the eyes of Jupiter (who is not shown in David’s painting) Mars and Minerva fight over the destiny of Troy. Minerva defeats Mars with the help of Venus, and this is the episode in the painting. The canvas reveals the young painter’s adherence to the style of Boucher, his first teacher, and the style of Carle van Loo, or even younger artists such as Doyen and Fragonard.
Portrait of Count Potocki
Stanislas Potocki (1755-1821) was a member of one of the most illustrious Polish families and was related to the king Stanislas-Auguste Poniatowski. The young count had completed his Grand Tour between 1779 and 1780 and had begun amassing an important collection of antiquities and paintings, and dedicating more and more energy to the fine arts. In 1787 he published a critique of the Salon and in 1815 a Polish version of Winckelmann’s History of the Art of Antiquity. During the Napoleonic era and the new realm in Poland, he was minister and president of the Council of State. According to tradition, Potocki and David met in Naples during a hunt. At the time the count tamed a wild horse, an episode that the painter immortalized. Actually, Potocki only went to Naples the year after David’s trip. The count ordered the portrait in Rome in 1780 and it was completed in Paris the following year. The young Pole’s ambitions are clearly evident in the choice of an equestrian portrait that was generally reserved for kings and warriors, and the dimensions of the canvas so that he could be portrayed life-sized. In stylistic terms it seems to be Van Dyck’s portrait of prince Tomaso di Savoia (Turin, Galleria Sabauda) of which there is a sketch by David in the Louvre.
The Oath of the Horatii
The genesis of The Oath of the Horatii was quite long. After David’s success at the 1781 Salon, d’Angiviller and Pierre decided to admit him to the team of historical painters and sculptors who received royal commissions at each Salon. The theme, that was modified over the years, was probably derived from a performance of Corneille’s Horace by the “Comédiens du roi” at the end of 1782, even though David had thought of the Horatii earlier. Corneille’s play does not include the oath, that we find in Rollin’s Histoire Romaine, one of the eighteenth century’s most popular books. David did the painting during his second Roman sojourn and it was displayed to the public in his atelier near Piazza del Popolo where it was a huge success. In 1785 it was exhibited at the Salon in Paris.
Antoine Lavoisier and his Wife
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-.1794) led a double career, as contractor general to the king, that led him to the scaffold, and scientist. One of the fathers of modern chemistry and its nomenclature, he analyzed the properties of hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen to study the phenomena of combustion. In 1789 he published his most famous work Traité élémentaire de chimie, that was illustrated by his wife. That same year he became substitute deputy to the Estates General and worked on reforming the system of weights and measures in 1790. In 1791 he became secretary of the treasury and drafted a fiscal reform. During the Terror the former “contractors” were arrested and 28, including Lavoisier, were guillotined in 1794. He had married the young Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze (1758-1836) in 1771 who became his assistant. In this monumental portrait David shows the couple at work. A portfolio of drawings on the armchair on the left alludes to the talents of Madame Lavoisier who had been a pupil of David. On the table we see the scientific instruments that are now in the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.
Paris and Helen
This painting was done for the count d’Artoi, the future Charles X, and most probably for his bedroom in the chateau of Bagatelle. Through the figures of Paris and Helen the painting, which may allude to the count’s love affair with Madame de Polastron, depicts the triumph of love over war. The painting contains allusions to Venus and amorous themes: Leda and the swan in the decorations on the bed, a bas-relief of Cupid and Psyche inspired by the Capitoline group on the pillar, the judgment of Paris on the lyre and the statue of Venus Pudica with the apple on a column to the left. David drew his inspiration from – and embellished - a passage in the Iliad (III, 380-450) in which Aphrodite, dressed as an old servant, encourages the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus, to follow Paris into his bedroom. The subject is quite unusual, but had been recently tackled by Angelika Kaufmann (Douglas Horne collection) and Gavin Hamilton for the Borghese Gallery. The central figures are based on a plaster cast of a vase in the Hamilton collection that David made during his first Italian sojourn.
Brutus and his Dead Sons
This large painting was done for the king and was exhibited at the Salon in 1789. The story of Lucius Junius Brutus is told by Livy and Plutarch, and also appears in Rollin’s Histoire Romaine. After the Tarquins were exiled, Brutus became one of the first two Roman consuls of the new government that was established in 508 BC. Brutus’ adolescent sons, Titus and Tiberius, took part in a conspiracy organized by their mother’s family, the Vitelli. When their father learned of the plot he had them condemned to death and impassively watched their execution. David chose this moment – unusual in the visual arts – that Plutarch describes in full horror and grandeur. The artist modified the episode showing Brutus in the shadows on the left, at the foot of the statue of Rome as the bearers bring home the bodies of his sons. On the right, bathed in light, his wife and daughters abandon themselves to desperation.
The Death of Marat
Girault, the spokesman of the Section du Contract Social at the Convention asked David to do this painting on 14 July 1793. It was completed in November and was hung in the Assembly hall. Jean-Paul Marat was one of the most visible and controversial figures of the Revolution. A writer who was concerned with social issues and science, he became physician to the Count d’Artois in 1779. In 1789 he placed his pen at the service of the Revolution, drafted an outline for a constitutional monarchy and founded the journal L’Ami du peuple. He was an adversary of the Girondins whom he accused of treason, he was assassinated on 13 July 1793 by Charlotte Corday, who managed to get into his presence by saying that she had information about the counter-revolutionaries. His death made a huge impression on the Jacobins who were led by David. His painting shows Marat in the bath (he bathed frequently to obtain relief from the itching he suffered because of a skin disease), with a letter from Charlotte Corday in his hand. Corday was subsequently executed. On the light wooden box, there is a dedication and David’s signature and a check to give to the murderess and her children, a symbol of the deceased’s generosity. The scene is distinguished by almost monastic austerity and the parallel with the religious theme of the Deposition of Christ is evident from Marat’s pose that recalls a painting by Caravaggio.
The Death of Barra
This painting was commissioned by the Convention of 28 December 1793 but was never completed. Joseph Barra, born in 1779, was at the service of the general of the Revolution, Desmarres d’Estimauville and was killed in a battle at Jallais in 1793. Desmarres reported the fact in a letter to the Convention and called Barra a “revolutionary martyr.” Robespierre requested that he be honored in the Pantheon and that David do a painting. Shortly afterwards, the Convention learned of the death of another young revolutionary, Agricol Viala, at Avignon. Robespierre likened him to Barra and decided to honor them both on the same day. In the portrait, David depicts Robespierre’s speech describing the young man holding the tricolor cockade to his heart as he died. Barra is portrayed nude, an ephebus in the purest Winckelmannian tradition, with a smooth, pure body to emphasize his role as a timeless hero.
The Sabine Women
This painting, that was never specifically commissioned, was completed in 1799. It was on view – against payment - in the Louvre until 1805 where it was a great success. The subject is quite rare, it can be found in an engraving by F.B. Fontana (1573), a canvas by Guercino and the large painting that Vincent exhibited at the Salon in 1781 (now in the Musée d’Angers). The episode is narrated by Livy and, in greater detail in Plutarch’s life of Romulus. Plutarch makes Hersilia the wife of Hostilius, but adds that according to some sources she was Romulus’ wife and that is the version that David adopted as he described the painting to visitors in a little book. He said that he took the moment immediately following the scene portrayed by Poussin, when the Sabine women separate the Roman armies from their men.
Jeanne-Françoise-Julie-Adélaïde Bernard (1777-1849) was the daughter of a wealthy banker from Lyon who had moved to Paris in 1784. In 1793 she married M. Récamier, a banker who was much older than she. Together they purchased and restored the Hôtel Necker, Chaussée-d’Antin where they lived quite royally. Admired by the powerful and by artists, she lived a more withdrawn life in 1806, and then, during the Restoration became close with Benjamin Constant and Chateaubriand. The ambitious, full-length portrait by David was done in 1800. More than her face, that takes up only a limited part of the canvas, space is the real protagonist: it is a bare room with just a few pieces of furniture that were probably her own. The simplicity of the décor is echoed by her Grecian style dress that was fashion of the period.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps
Ordered by Charles IV of Spain, David did this painting at the end of 1800. Delècluze, David’s biographer, recalls that the artist had all the clothes that Napoleon wore at Marengo brought to his studio (today they are in the Musée de l’Armée). It was the uniform of the officiers généraux to which David added a cloak of his own invention. In this painting he achieved a balance between the moderate realism of the face and accessories, and the idealism of the whole that transforms the general into somewhat of an allegory of heroism. Bonaparte’s name, carved into the rock in the left foreground is associated with the Hannibal and Charlemagne, the heroes who had crossed the Alps before him, while in the background we can see a few soldiers struggling as they haul cannons over the bare mountain.
This huge canvas was painted between 1821 and 1824 during David’s voluntary exile in Brussels, without having been specifically commissioned. It was taken to Paris in 1824 where it was on view (by payment). It aroused the enthusiasm of David’s “fans”, as well as criticism on the part of the more keen observers who noted the extreme and perfectionist use of drawing and colors. The rigor of the geometric and frontal composition, that inspired Ingres’ Apotheosis of Homer, the measured balance between the reds and blues in the background and the perfectly drawn, statuesque body of Venus distinguish the final large work of the old painter who, for fifteen years was engaged, in an attempt to render the ancient more current, even though it was a “mythological” ancient that was indeed distant from the ethical and moral charge of his works from the previous century.