Jacques-Louis David

Born in 1748, Jacques-Louis David became one of the most influential painters of the 19th century. His style of historical paintings, personality, and his high connections led to a heavy involvement in the French Revolution.

            From an early age, David wanted to be a painter, despite his family’s wishes for him to be an architect. He first studied under Joseph-Marie Vien, whose inspirations were more classical. He then attended the Royal Academy. David drew his inspirations from more classical sources, like Raphael and the ruins of Pompeii. He went on to have between 40 and 50 pupils, onto which he passed his  style and influence.

            In his paintings, David expressed himself politically. He attempted to portray historical events, past and present, in his early years, then shifted gears into a more sophisticated stylization. There was also a great deal of difference between his “public” and “private” works. In his commissioned portraits, men and women would sit on equal standing, in a loving manner. However in his public works, women were always swooning, smaller, and in general, appeared weaker than the male counterparts in the work. Also, there was a great deal of symbolism in his political works, all representing the need for unity and overthrowing the old royal regime. He tended towards more current controversial topics. As he shifted styles in his later years, he drew inspiration from ancient Greek mythology. These paintings had “a noble simplicity and silent greatness in pose as well as expression,” by David’s own admission.

            David’s personality lent a great deal to his influential way. He was ferocious in that he held strongly to his political beliefs and drew heavily on his political connections, but some found him hard to get along with. However, he had strong ambitions, and people acknowledged his genius, so was accepted into society despite several oppositions. In French society, socializing and an eloquent nature lent quite a bit to becoming powerful, as in the case of Napoleon. However, after a sword injury to the face, David had a speech impediment and what some thing to have been a benign tumor. This greatly lowered his sociability, but not his influence.

            He strongly strove to destroy the old order of France, and create a unification of man and country, which also became apparent in his artworks, making him a very strong supporter of the French Revolution. He believed not only in unification, but in sacrificing oneself for the sake of the country. He desired the end result of a republican government. Due to his strong political beliefs, David joined the Jacobin Club, the most popular political club at the time. Through the club, he became personal friends with Maximilien Robespierre, also a member of the Jacobin Club, and one of the most influential people during the French Revolution. Napoleon also held David in high regards, and he was soon hired as the official painter of the regime of new government.

            Due to his connections with Napoleon, David held strong positions during the French Revolution. David was soon appointed the head of organizing committees to celebrate the lives of martyrs who died fighting for the cause, and also to celebrate the deaths of the ex-ruling tyrants. These parties, known as “fêtes,” were used as a propaganda tool to support the revolution because they brought the masses together, and were henceforth used as initiation rites.

            David was later arrested for his involvement in the Revolution. In prison, he saw a reform in his arduous ways, and he plead for the people of France to reunite after all the blood shed during Revolution.  After being released from prison, David retired from politics to pursue more peaceful, family-oriented endeavors. As the Royals returned to power, however, David chose to exile himself to Brussels. He continued to live there, peacefully, until the end of his life.

            In a twist of irony, this highly politically and artistically influential man was killed in the most mundane of ways. After being hit by a carriage, Jacques-Louis David died at the age of 77. Some of his painting were sold or exhibited, but not much profit was generated. Despite his anti-climactic death, David’s memory and influence lived on in the lives he had affected throughout his own. He inspired many pupils and art admirers, as well as supporters of the Republic and unity of France.

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About mlleminor

Instructor in MCL French Division at the University of Kentucky
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