Biography of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

French neoclassical painter, whose work represents the achievement of the neoclassical ideal in painting. Its same trajectory reflects the previous search for a style, the culmination to create a new language, and decay when already other concerns are dominating the field of the arts.

He was born in Paris August 30, 1748. His father at age nine, was under the protection of his uncle and guardian, architect Desmaisons, and his godfather, Michel Sedaine, Member and Secretary respectively of the Academy of architecture. These provided an early education in Humanities and drawing, first at the Academy of Saint - Luc, and then in the workshop of Joseph-Marie Bien (1716-1809), famous painter integrated in the European movement of recovery of antiquity.

After several attempts to get the Prix de Rome in 1774 with the picture of Antiochus and Stratonice (1774, Paris, Ecole nationale des Beaux Arts). The canvas has, both color and composition, the memory of the painting of the 17TH century. The subject and composition are taken from a scene by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) for the decoration of the Palacio Pitti in Florence, and the colorful is on the line of the painting of the French Poussin (1594-1665); undoubtedly the innovation is in the moral component of the scene: the Prince Antioco that ill because of impossible love for Stratonice stepmother; the containment of this love and respect for his father include painting in the new current regenerating of the arts.

In 1775 it is as a pensioner in Italy in the company of Vien had been appointed Director of the French Academy in Rome. During the five years of stay drew incessantly models from antiquity, but also got you hooked, travel around the country, with paintings of the old masters such as Correggio and Rafael. Membership to the refreshing currents of neoclassicism was reinforced by the company of the French theorist Quatremère de Quincy following the doctrines of Winckelmann.

On his return to France he/she begins to reveal what he/she had learned during his pensioner; works in the Salon of 1781, the most notorious Belisarius begging (1780-81, Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts), and Andromache ensuring the corpse of Héctor (1783, École des Beaux-Arts) with which it welcomes you as a member of the Academy, reflect a perfect knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history and the ease in the use of the archaeological details; a nothing bright colorful with contrasts of light and shadow allows graduating the drama, something that has collected paintings by Caravaggio and his followers. However, it is still in the line of a Poussin renovated by the themes of exaltation of the patriotic virtues.

The oath of the Horatii (1784-85, Paris, Louvre) to the Salon of 1785, which has now reached a total purge of his style without debts with the previous painting, is a manifesto of neoclassicism. It represents the moment in which the three Horatii brothers swear before their father safeguard against Alba Roma, via a personal combat with their cousins the Curiatii. David has chosen the theme, in part out of Tito Livio, as exemplum virtutis, as a model of patriotic virtue. In an almost geometric stage are represented in foreground characters separated into two well-defined groups, male figures make up an image that reflects the energy of the group which pronounced the oath, by against women form a whole Kingdom by its ample folds dresses and the feeling of pain measured at what lies ahead. The robes have colors vivid but neutralized by the joint; compositionally it is very simple with a perfect match to the neoclassical current: an absolute formal simplicity to express the lofty patriotic virtue of the characters.

The notoriety reached with the Horatii became of David the painter of the moment, the artist who played the historical needs of the prerevolutionary France. Later paintings such as the death of Socrates (1787, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Brutus (1789, Paris, Louvre) affect the exaltation of stoicism and civic virtues.

David is committed to the revolution and became Deputy and President of the Convention; their vote supported the execution of the King Luis XVI and María Antonieta. It dealt to organize and stage acts and festivals patriotic; his paintings of those years are authentic manifests of the revolution. The oath of the tennis court (1793-94, Palacio de Versailles) reproduces the Act of applying for a Constitution and therefore for confronting the real power. The death of Marat (1793, Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts) is with its austere composition, its neutral colour and dibujístico rigour, the perfect symbol of the revolutionary martyr, killed for their ideas.

The fall of Robespierre was the jail to David and the withdrawal of his paintings. The arrival to power of Napoleon it regained its artistic prestige well fed by a workshop in which they quote disciples after renowned Gros and Gerard, Girodet, Ingres. His style was soon adapted to represent the glories and virtues of the emperor which serves as propaganda; portrays it horse crossing the Alps (1801, Château de Malmaison) identified with the figure of Hannibal, or in his study (1812, Washington, National Gallery of Art) working for the welfare of his people.

Napoleon in his study (oil on canvas, 1812). National Gallery of art (Washington).

The glory of Napoleon and the pomp of his court were reflected in the coronation of Josefina (1807, Paris, Louvre) a work that represents the luxury ceremony with thoroughness and portrays all the personalities of the time.

The defeat of Napoleon brought exile for David, his painter, who took refuge in Belgium where followed dedicated to painting and his teaching, but each time with a style more off the hook of the fashions of the moment. Pictures such as Cupid and psyche (1817, Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio) speak of a cold and academic version of the classics, although some of his portraits of those years to have even the freshness and immediacy that David was able to get. His death in 1825, was the end of a career which marked a whole era.

Jacques-Louis David. Engraving. The oath of the Horatii.

The Sabine women (oil on canvas, 1799). Museum of the Louvre (Paris).


FRANCASTEL, Pierre: History of French painting (from the middle ages to Picasso). Ed. Alianza, Madrid, 1970.

FRIEDLAENDER, Walter: From David to Delacroix. Ed. Alianza, Madrid, 1992.

CARMONA MATO, Eugenio: David. The art collection and its creators, no. 27. Historia 16, Madrid, 1995.

María Dolores antiquity of the Castillo-Olivares