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David, Jacques-Louis unlocked

(b Paris, Aug 30, 1748; d Brussels, Dec 29, 1825).
  • Simon Lee

French painter and draughtsman. He was the most prominent and influential painter of the Neo-classical movement in France (see Neo-classicism). In the 1780s he created a style of austere and ethical painting that perfectly captured the moral climate of the last years of the ancien régime. Later, as an active revolutionary, he put his art at the service of the new French Republic and for a time was virtual dictator of the arts. He was imprisoned after the fall from power of Maximilien de Robespierre but on his release became captivated by the personality of Napoleon I and developed an Empire style in which warm Venetian colour played a major role. Following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1816, David went into exile in Brussels, where he continued to paint but was regarded as something of an anachronism. He had a huge number of pupils, and his influence was felt (both positively and negatively) by the majority of French 19th-century painters. He was a revolutionary artist in both a technical and a political sense. His compositional innovations effected a complete rupture with Rococo fantasy; he is considered the greatest single figure in European painting between the late Rococo and the Romantic era.

I. Life and work.

1. Training and early career, to 1789. 2. Painting and political activity during the French Revolution, 1789–95. 3. Work during the Directory and the Empire, 1795–1814. 4. Late works and exile in Brussels, 1814–25.

1. Training and early career, to 1789.

David was born into a well-to-do family of Parisian tradesmen. His mother’s family included masons and architects, and they played an increasing role in David’s education and upbringing following his father’s death in a duel in 1757. At first he attempted to become a pupil of François Boucher, his grandmother’s cousin. The aged Boucher, however, was disinclined to take on pupils, and instead David entered the studio of Joseph-Marie Vien. He also enrolled at the school of the Académie Royale in 1766. In 1770 he entered the Prix de Rome competition for the first time but failed to reach the final. A year later he won second prize with his Boucher-inspired Combat of Mars and Minerva (Paris, Louvre). Claiming that he had deserved first prize and had been downgraded at Vien’s insistence, he also harboured a grudge against the first prize winner, Joseph-Benoît Suvée (whom he later described as ‘ignorant and horrible’). The defeat seems to have been the start of his grievances against the Académie. In 1772 he was again earmarked for one of the two prizes, along with Pierre-Charles Jombert (1748/9–after 1777). David’s suspicions concerning the conduct of the Prix were confirmed when a conspiracy caused Academicians to change votes. The first prize went not to David but to the mediocre Anicet-Charles Lemonnier (1743–1824). David also contributed to his own downfall by painting over his first attempt—the set subject was Apollo and Diana Killing the Children of Niobe—before the old paint was dry. Consequently the surface blackened and deteriorated, as can be seen clearly in his picture (Paris, priv. col., see 1981 exh. cat., p. 30, fig.). As a result of this judgement David made a half-hearted suicide attempt but was dissuaded from it by Gabriel-François Doyen. In 1773 David was beaten again, but this time by a most accomplished rival, Pierre Peyron. David’s entry, the Death of Seneca (Paris, Petit Pal.), attempts to depict the stoic resolve of the philosopher, but the hectic Baroque composition militates against the gravity of the subject. He finally won the Prix de Rome in 1774 with Erasistratus Discovers the Cause of the Illness of Antiochus (Paris, Ecole N. Sup. B.-A.), in which he adopted a friezelike grouping of the protagonists and concentrated on narrative clarity.

David left Paris for Rome in October 1775 with Vien, who had just been appointed Director of the Académie de France in Rome. He apparently felt that the eternal city had little to teach him, declaring ‘the Antique will not seduce me, it lacks animation, it does not move’. In Italy David drew dutifully from the Antique, but he was not an obsessive antiquarian. Instead he studied the art of 17th-century painters, including Nicolas Poussin, Caravaggio and his followers, the Carracci family and Guido Reni. He then set about creating a rational synthesis of the real and the ideal that was free from the artificialities of the Rococo style. Life drawing and past masters played a crucial role in David’s stylistic development. Yet such changes were accomplished only gradually. His early Roman works, such as the Funeral of Patroclus (c. 1778; Dublin, N.G.), are still crowded with figures and show little or no change from his Parisian works. However, in his first independent commission, St Roch Interceding for the Plague-stricken (Marseille, Mus. B.-A.), David revealed a desire for grandeur, simplicity and clarity that signalled future directions.

David left Rome in July 1780 and returned to Paris with the intention of becoming an associate member of the Académie Royale. The following year he produced as his morceau d’agrégation a painting of Belisarius Receiving Alms (Lille, Mus. B.-A.). The Belisarius story was highly topical—Jean-François Marmontel had published his historical romance Bélisaire in 1767, and François-André Vincent and Peyron had painted the story in 1776 (Montpellier, Mus. Fabre) and 1779 (Toulouse, Mus. Augustins) respectively. For his version David turned to a format that was striking in its directness and simplicity. A small cast of characters is set solidly against an architectural background. Clear, unequivocal gestures are made, and subdued colours are used. While David’s Belisarius is often hailed as the first masterpiece of Neo-classicism in France, it is perhaps more accurate to refer to neo-Poussinism, as Poussinesque references are obvious and undisguised.

At this time David started to take on pupils, remaining an influential teacher throughout his life. He operated a separate studio for teaching but also used the more able students as assistants on replicas and large-scale history paintings. The first generation of his very talented pupils included Jean-Germain Drouais, François-Xavier Fabre, Jean-François Garneray, Philippe-Auguste Hennequin and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Wicar. In 1783 David was received (reçu) as a full Academician with Andromache Mourning Hector (exh. Salon 1783; Paris, Ecole N. Sup. B.-A., on dep. Paris, Louvre). This is David at his most severe and drab, although some contemporary critics felt that there was too little restraint in Andromache’s grieving.

David’s Neo-classicism found its clearest expression in 1784 with the monumental Oath of the Horatii(exh. Salon 1785; Paris, Louvre). To undertake this work, a commission from the Direction des Bâtiments du Roi, David felt it necessary to return to Rome, where he spent October 1784 to August 1785. In the Horatii he arrived at an artistic solution whereby stoical content and stylistic gravity were perfectly harmonized. The Horatii theme had been suggested to him as early as 1780. In depicting the three Horatii swearing allegiance to their father (a scene not mentioned in any of the sources David would have consulted for the story, e.g. Livy, Plutarch, Corneille) he underlined the central theme of the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the state. Albert Boime (see ‘David et la franc maçonnerie’ in David contre David) has established that David was a freemason, and this possibly influenced his choice of an oath-taking ritual. David was a freemason, and the depiction of an oath might have been inspired by the rituals of the masonic lodge. A number of historians, notably Crow (1985), have identified an element of pre-Revolutionary radicalism in the painting. Although it was an overwhelming success, bringing David to a position of stylistic dominance in France that eclipsed such rivals as Vincent, Peyron and Suvée, many conservative critics were disquieted by it and wrote that it would be a bad example for young artists to follow. In its simplifications and dissonances of composition it is a profoundly anti-academic work and clear evidence of David’s antagonism towards the Académie.

Jacques-Louis David: Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.30×4.25 m, 1784 (Paris, Musée du Louvre); Photo credit: Scala/Art Resources NY

Jacques-Louis David: Death of Socrates, oil on canvas, 51 x 77 1/4 in. (129.5 x 196.2 cm), 1787 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931, Accession ID:31.45); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the following two Salons David continued to exhibit his austere brand of Neo-classicism with the Death of Socrates (1787; New York, Met.) and the Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789; Paris, Louvre). The former, although not a royal commission, nevertheless focuses on the moral rectitude of Socrates, who drinks the hemlock without ceasing the flow of his improving words. A note of hysteria is introduced by the reactions of Socrates’ disciples (passion is rarely absent from David’s work). Brutus was painted for Louis XVI and exhibited shortly after the storming of the Bastille. Due to the Republican nature of its theme—Brutus rid Rome of Tarquin, the last of the kings of Rome—the painting later acquired a political significance that David presumably did not originally intend. David invites the viewer to judge Brutus either as a hero, for his devotion to Rome, or as a monster, for executing his own sons.

Jacques-Louis David: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and his Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836), oil on canvas, 102 1/4 x 76 5/8 in. (259.7 x 194.6 cm), 1788 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Everett Fahy, 1977, Accession ID: 1977.10); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It would, however, be a mistake to consider David in the 1780s as simply a cold and clinical classicist. He was also interested in mythology and portraiture: his Courtship of Paris and Helen (1788; Paris, Louvre) is a complete contrast to the morally elevating history paintings. It has an exquisite refinement of colour, an elegant idealization of bodies and a degree of archaeological accuracy that are absent from the Horatii, Socrates and Brutus. In addition, portraiture played a significant, if minor, part in David’s career up to and including the Revolution. Numerous early family portraits exist, for example that of his aunt Mme Marie-Josèphe Buron (1769; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.), an animated work reminiscent of the portraits of Joseph-Siffred Duplessis. Then in 1781 David painted the splendid equestrian portrait of the Polish nobleman Count Stanisław Potocki (Warsaw, N. Mus.), which reveals debts to the Baroque tradition of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. David’s most striking pre-Revolutionary portrait is the double full-length of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier and his Wife Marie-Anne Pierette (1788; New York, Met.). This shows the eminent chemist, seated and surrounded by his experimental apparatus, with his wife leaning, muselike, on his shoulder. David could have made a handsome living painting portraits alone but sought the fame and glory that history painting brought.

2. Painting and political activity during the French Revolution, 1789–95.

Assessments of David as a rabid regicide who used his art as a political weapon do not take adequate account of the complexity of his political career. After 1789 he took part in the attacks against the privileges of the officers of the Académie Royale. His anti-academic feelings were also fuelled by the Académie’s refusal to grant posthumous membership to Drouais, his favourite pupil, who had died in 1788. The dissidents eventually prevailed, and the Académie was abolished on 8 August 1793. It was replaced in 1795 by the Institut de France, of which David was an inaugural member (see Paris, §VI, 1). He was not directly involved in politics until September 1790, when he joined the Revolutionary Jacobin Club. By this time he had been working for about six months on his first Revolutionary picture, the Oath of the Tennis Court (Paris, Louvre). David had originally approached the Jacobins to sponsor this project, and finance was to come from subscriptions. When this failed, the costs were taken over by the state. The event to be commemorated was that of 20 June 1789, when the Deputies of the Third Estate, meeting in the royal tennis court at the Château of Versailles, swore not to disperse until a constitution was assured. Although many drawings survive for this project (e.g. Versailles, Château), David seems not to have been present on the day and treated this as a straightforward commercial commission rather than as a patriotic duty. He planned a large canvas full of portraits of the Deputies with the President of the Constituent Assembly, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, addressing the spectator. However, political events moved too fast for David; by the winter of 1791–2 this vision of the Revolution had become outmoded, and many of the ‘heroes’ of 1789 had been discredited or exiled. David painted only four Deputies’ heads on the surviving canvas fragment, and a better idea of the project is gained from his highly finished drawing (both Versailles, Château). In the spring of 1792 David also received an unexpected commission to paint Louis XVI Showing the Constitution to the Dauphin (incomplete), a work that was intended to hang in the meeting room of the Legislative Assembly (Schnapper, Bordes). Drawings (Paris, Louvre, RF 36942) prove that he started the commission and indicate the gradual nature of his political conversion. Following these abortive projects David became increasingly involved in politics. He was elected a Deputy of the Convention in September 1792 and allied himself closely with Robespierre. In 1793 he voted for the death of Louis XVI, and in January 1794 he served a term of 13 days as President of the Convention. Part of his duties included the signing of arrest warrants—an aspect of his political career he later vehemently denied.

During the Revolution David was given the task of glorifying three martyrs of the cause: Louis-Michel Lepelletier de Saint-Fargeau (1793, destr.; engraving by Pierre-Alexandre Tardieu (1756–1844), Paris, Bib. N., Cab. Est.), Joseph Bara (1794, unfinished; Avignon, Mus. Calvet) and Jean-Paul Marat (1793; Brussels, Mus. A. Anc.; versions, Versailles, Château, Paris, Louvre). David was called on by the Convention to paint the last-mentioned work, better known as the Death of Marat, the day after Marat’s assassination by Charlotte Corday. The sombre greenish setting was possibly inspired by the lighting of the disaffected church of the Cordeliers, Paris, where the body lay in state; David not only exploited the emotional quality of the chill, dark void above Marat’s body but leant on aspects of Christian iconography, as if transcending death to excite Revolutionary ardour. In sharp contrast to the heroic Marat is David’s brutally realistic pen drawing of Queen Marie-Antoinette on her Way to the Scaffold (1793; Paris, Louvre).

Jacques-Louis David: Jean-Paul Marat (or Death of Marat), oil on canvas, 1.65×1.28 m, 1793 (Brussels, Musée d’Art Ancient, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts); Photo credit: Giraudon/Art Resource NY

From 1792 David also organized some of the great Revolutionary festivals and pageants. The most elaborate of these was the Festival of the Supreme Being on 20 Prairial Year II (8 June 1794), for which he evolved the overall programme and provided designs for the props and temporary architecture (destr.). Among surviving drawings for such ephemeral works is that entitled the Triumph of the French People (c. 1793; Paris, Louvre), designed for a theatre curtain. In addition, he continued to produce portraits, painting figures from the liberal middle and upper classes, as in the unfinished portrait of Mme Adélaïde Pastoret (c. 1792; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.), and representatives of foreign governments in Paris, including Jacobus Blauw (1795; London, N.G.). One of the Batavian (Dutch) government’s plenipotentiary ministers, he is depicted at work at his desk, gazing pensively out into space; David paid great attention to the still-lifes of objects on the desk and to the muted colour harmonies of Blauw’s clothes. A portrait of Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac (1792–3; Bremen, Ksthalle), once attributed to David, is now given to his pupil Jean-Louis Laneuville.

On 9 Thermidor (27 July) 1794 Robespierre fell from power and was executed. David, who had once promised to drink the hemlock with him, was lucky to escape with his life. He underwent two periods of imprisonment, though under lenient conditions that allowed him to continue to work, first from 2 August to 28 December 1794 in the Hôtel des Fermes and Palais de Luxembourg and then from 29 May to 3 August 1795 in the Collège des Quatre-Nations. Suffering ill-health, he was released on parole. In prison he painted a Self-portrait (1794; Paris, Louvre) that shows him, palette and brush in hand, staring directly at the spectator; his swollen left cheek, concealing a huge benign tumour (the result of a youthful duelling accident), is clearly visible. In captivity David painted one or two landscapes, his only recorded excursion into this genre. However, the View of the Luxembourg Gardens (1794; Paris, Louvre), once attributed to him, has aroused doubts about both its subject-matter and its authorship.

3. Work during the Directory and the Empire, 1795–1814.

During his imprisonment David also began work on an ambitious history painting, the Intervention of the Sabine Women (Paris, Louvre), not completed until 1799. This shows the Sabine women separating the belligerent groups of Sabine and Roman men, the latter having come to reclaim their females. The painting focuses on reconciliation, a theme of some contemporary relevance, since following the Reign of Terror, French society was returning to normality under the government of the Directory. It also demonstrates a change in David’s aesthetics. He said that he wanted it to be ‘more Greek’ and thus depicted smoother and more sculptural forms than the muscular Roman bodies of the Horatii. In fact, he found himself having to defend the figures’ excessive nudity. The overall effect is completely different from the morally exemplary history paintings of the 1780s. By contrast with the tense grouping of the Oath of the Horatii, the Intervention of the Sabine Women has a very large cast of characters, requiring it to be read serially, incident by incident and group by group. It shows his growing interest in ‘Primitive’ art, with ideas of formal purity derived from Greek sculpture and 15th-century Italian painting. Similar interests spurred some of his students to pursue these ideals even further and to form a group known as Primitifs, Les, led by the mysterious Pierre-Maurice Quay (c. 1779–1804). David’s work did not adhere closely enough to the students’ notion of purity; they even accused him of being too florid, with the result that he asked them to leave his studio. David painted the Sabine Women as a tribute to his wife, and to offset the costs of production he took the unprecedented step of exhibiting it in one of the rooms of the Louvre and charging an admission fee. This exhibition lasted from 1799 to 1804, and from the proceeds he bought a country property at Ozoeut le Voulgis in the Seine-et-Marne Valley.

Following his release from prison, David declared that he would no longer follow men, he would follow principles. This indicated a desire to steer clear of controversial subjects. However, he soon came under the spell of the brilliant young Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte, who first posed for David early in 1798. The product of this three-hour sitting is a fragmentary canvas (Paris, Louvre) showing the figure in outline with details of the head and shoulders sketched in. David’s idea was to paint Bonaparte standing full-length after the victorious battle of Castiglione, next to a horse controlled by a groom. But no more sittings followed, and the picture remained unfinished. Nevertheless, this brief meeting had a profound effect on David, who announced, ‘Bonaparte is my hero’.

On 18 Brumaire (10 November) 1799, Bonaparte and the army staged a coup d’état that replaced the Directory with the Consulate and made Bonaparte First Consul. He further endeared himself to the French public in 1800 by re-conquering Italy for the second time in five years. Charles IV of Spain commissioned David to paint this event, Napoleon Crossing the St Bernard Pass (Malmaison, Château N.), and Bonaparte then ordered copies of the picture (Vienna, Ksthis. Mus.; Versailles, Château, 2 versions; Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg). Napoleon refused to sit for the portrait, sending instead the uniform he had worn at the Battle of Marengo, and did not submit to David’s proposed format either: David wanted to paint him sword in hand, but Napoleon replied that battles were no longer won in this way and that he wanted to be painted ‘calm on a fiery steed’; David duly obliged. The magnitude of the event in David’s view is indicated by the placing of Napoleon’s name on a rock above those of two previous transalpine conquerors, Hannibal and Charlemagne. Like most propaganda images, the painting is economical with the truth, since Napoleon actually crossed the Alps seated on a mule. The impersonal, static quality of the work is doubtless due to the lack of any real contact between artist and sitter.

Jacques-Louis David: Napoleon Crossing the St Bernard Pass, oil on canvas, 2.7×2.0 m, 1800–1 (Malmaison, Château National de Malmaison); photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource/NY

This distance between David and Napoleon contrasts sharply with the circumstances that surrounded one of his most famous portraits, that of Mme Juliette Récamier (Paris, Louvre), on which he worked early in 1800. The great society beauty was wilful and spoiled and obviously saw herself as something other than the vulnerable and isolated figure that David depicted. The simple and unadorned setting is redolent of tension. She reclines on a fashionable day-bed made by Georges Jacob. No rich accessories surround her, only an Antique-inspired lamp (painted by David’s newest pupil, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres). David finally became exasperated with Mme Récamier’s late arrivals for sittings and refused to continue, leaving the picture unfinished.

David quickly enjoyed the rewards of Napoleonic patronage: in December 1803 he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, and in December 1804, immediately after Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor, he became his Premier Peintre. David’s relationship with Napoleon and his ministers was, however, ambivalent, mostly due to incessant and inflated demands for remuneration. The coronation took place on 2 December, and David was charged with commemorating the event. Initially the exact subjects for the commission were not specified; not until June 1806 did David submit a detailed description of the four planned paintings. The subjects were the Coronation of Napoleon in Notre-Dame, the Enthronement, the Distribution of the Eagle Standards and the Reception of the Emperor and Empress at the Hôtel de Ville. Of these, only the Coronation and the Distribution of the Eagle Standards were completed; the Reception at the Hôtel de Ville got only as far as a detailed drawing (Paris, Louvre) and the Enthronement seems never to have been started.

The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre-Dame, also known as Le Sacre (Paris, Louvre; version, 1822, Versailles, Château), occupied David from 1805 to 1807, and he was given the secularized church of Cluny, in the Place de la Sorbonne, as a studio (destr. 1833). He made exhaustive preliminary studies for all the personages to be shown and enlisted the help of Ignace-Eugène-Marie Degotti (d 1824), a scene painter from the Paris Opéra, for difficulties he encountered with perspective. David had the problem of which moment of the ceremony to depict: at first he proposed Napoleon crowning himself (drawing, Paris, Louvre, RF 4377), but at the suggestion of his former pupil François Gérard, this was abandoned in favour of Napoleon crowning Josephine. The open composition leads the spectator into the picture, almost as if to participate in the ceremony, a feature not lost on Napoleon. With the Coronation David had to find an appropriate style to celebrate the magnificence of the Empire, and to this end he turned to the opulence of Rubens, in particular his Coronation of Marie de’ Medici (Paris, Louvre), then in the Palais du Luxembourg. Whites, reds, greens and golds dominate, and the large cast of characters is manipulated with supreme finesse and clarity. The work was a staggering success and encapsulates the splendour of the First Empire most effectively.

Jacques-Louis David: Coronation of Napoleon in Notre-Dame (detail), also known as Le Sacre, oil on canvas, 6.1×9.3 m, 1805–7 (Paris, Musée du Louvre); photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (1810; Versailles, Château) shows the ceremony held on the Champ de Mars, Paris, three days after the coronation. Here Napoleon, in a deliberate parallel with ancient Rome, presented flags attached to poles topped with the Imperial eagle to all the army regiments and to the National Guard. Oaths of allegiance were then sworn. David’s picture is a curious amalgam of high-minded patriotism and romantic Napoleonic pageant and allegory, the end result lacking in cohesion: the group of generals swarming up the steps to the tribune has an awkward, frozen quality, and the work suffered because Napoleon insisted on changes being made. Most radical of these was the removal of the figure of Empress Josephine, whom he had recently divorced, resulting in considerable reworking of the left side of the picture. David’s series of grand Napoleonic paintings ended with this work. His demands for 100,000 francs for each painting were considered excessive, and when other commissions were distributed they went to lesser (and less expensive) artists.

At this time David also began to face serious competition from his own former pupils, notably Gérard, Antoine-Jean Gros and Anne-Louis Girodet. Gros in particular was invited to execute a number of prestigious Napoleonic commissions, including the the Plague House at Jaffa (1804) and the Battle of Eylau (1808; both Paris, Louvre). In 1802 Girodet produced the wildly allegorical Apotheosis of French Heroes who Died for the Country during the War for Liberty (Malmaison, Château N.), a work that left David doubting Girodet’s sanity. This increased competition led David to disassociate himself from many of his ex-pupils, whom he then considered as rivals. He did, however, remain on friendly terms with Gros.

Although there were no more official commissions from Napoleon, David was commissioned to paint the Emperor, surprisingly, by an Englishman, Alexander Douglas-Hamilton (later 10th Duke of Hamilton). The life-size, full-length portrait of Napoleon in his Study (1812; Washington, DC, N.G.A.; version, Versailles, Château) was considered an excellent likeness and depicts the Emperor as lawgiver, working on the Napoleonic code into the small hours of the morning. In the background the clock shows 4.13 and the candle on his desk is almost burnt out.

David’s duties for Napoleon between 1800 and 1810 had delayed the progress on Leonidas at Thermopylae (Paris, Louvre), the companion piece to the Intervention of the Sabine Women. He also experienced difficulty in finding an image striking enough to convey what he considered to be a deep and final classical statement. Although planned in 1799, this work was not completed until 1815. The story is that of Leonidas, King of Sparta, who with his band of men defended the pass at Thermopylae against superior Persian forces in the knowledge that death awaited them. David wrote at length about his intentions for this work in the anonymously published Explication (1814), saying that he wanted an air of calm acceptance and contemplation to reign over the scene. This is most clearly expressed in the static and pensive figure of Leonidas, taken from a cameo illustrated in Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Monumenti antichi inediti (1767). Almost none of David’s contemporaries liked the work; it made Napoleon feel uneasy, possibly because he construed it as a presage of defeat.

4. Late works and exile in Brussels, 1814–25.

In April 1814, with British, Prussian, Austrian and Russian troops on French soil, Napoleon abdicated, and the Bourbon monarchy was restored under Louis XVIII. David kept a low profile during the first year of the Restoration but returned to Napoleon’s side during the Hundred Days of 1815. He also signed the ‘Addendum to the Constitution of the Empire’, which prohibited any attempt to restore the Bourbons. But after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in June 1815 and the re-establishment of the Bourbon monarchy, Paris became a dangerous place for David. He applied for passports for England and Switzerland and went on a brief sketching trip to the latter. In January 1816 a law was passed banishing all regicides, and although David was informed that he could be exempted from it, he decided to go into exile in Belgium. He handed his teaching studio over to Gros and departed from Paris in late January 1816. A number of David’s pupils were Belgian, notably François-Joseph Navez and Joseph-Denis Odevaere, and they welcomed and assisted him in Brussels, where he settled.

Historians have paid relatively little attention to the final nine years of David’s career, a common view being that in Belgium his powers declined dramatically. Yet this was not David’s opinion. Undoubtedly his later pictures appear different, but this can be attributed less to an artistic decline than to a change in artistic direction. David felt his Brussels pictures to be among his best, since in them he captured ‘the simple and energetic taste of ancient Greece’. In the Anger of Achilles (1819; Fort Worth, TX, Kimbell A. Mus.), for example, Achilles, Agamemnon, Iphigenia and Clytemnestra are shown half-length in a highly compressed space close to the picture plane. In terms of both style and content this is a departure from his Parisian work, showing a concentration on the complex emotional interactions of the protagonists. Agamemnon’s gesture and gaze that stop Achilles from drawing his sword may relate to the ideas on magnetism and personal control propagated by the Austrian physician Franz-Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). The colours are hard-edged and brilliant, indicating a study of Flemish painting of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Jacques-Louis David: General Etienne-Maurice Gérard (1773–1852), Marshal of France, oil on canvas, 77 5/8 x 53 5/8 in. (197.2 x 136.2 cm), 1816 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Rogers and Fletcher Funds, and Mary Wetmore Shively Bequest, in memory of her husband, Henry L. Shively M.D, 1965, Accession ID: 65.14.5); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

While in Brussels David built up a considerable portrait practice. He painted a whole series of former Revolutionaries and supporters of Napoleon who were fellow exiles. These include the full-length of Gen. Etienne-Maurice Gérard (1816; New York, Met.) and the seated three-quarter-length of Comte Henri-Amédée de Turenne (1816; Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyp.). He also received commissions from the Belgian upper classes and nobility, and many of these paintings remain in the possession of the families that commissioned them, such as Vicomtesse Sophie Vilain XIIII [XIV] and her Daughter (London, N.G.). David seems often to have enlisted the help of assistants in these portraits.

Mythological painting also occupied a good deal of David’s time in Brussels. He once declared that he had no talent for such subjects, but nevertheless many of his late works deal with Anacreontic themes of pairs of lovers. The first of these was Cupid and Psyche (Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.), commissioned in 1813 by the distinguished Italian collector Conte Giovanni Battista Sommariva and completed in 1817. Here David’s mode of mythological expression is not to idealize and create languorous rhythms. Instead his figure of Cupid is firmly rooted in realism, a rather jarring conjunction of myth and reality. There is some evidence that David was working towards this painting before he left Paris, as it shares many stylistic characteristics with Sappho and Phaon (1809; St Petersburg, Hermitage).

The unsettling combination of the real with the ideal is also present in David’s last large-scale painting, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1821–4; Brussels, Mus. A. Anc.). David attached great importance to this work, and he saw it as his last testament in paint. Although there is a good deal of idealization and rhythmic sophistication, a number of the figures—the three Graces especially—are in theatrical and forced poses. The element of fantasy, previously so important in mythological painting, is substituted by parody; David radically re-examined the whole framework of mythology in this and others of his late works. Hence his late activities may be seen as attempts to reinterpret mythology rather than as a regression to the Rococo style of his youth. However, these pursuits were totally out of step with contemporary Parisian developments, and French critics were dismissive of the last paintings.

During David’s exile the faithful Gros had been working for his master’s return to Paris. David stubbornly insisted that Brussels was to his liking. At one point in 1824 he needed only to sign a draft petition to return, but he refused to do so. In July 1825 he had a stroke and died in December of that year. He was denied burial in France, and so an impressive funeral was arranged for him by the Belgian government. Plans to return David’s remains to France in 1989 were frustrated by the Belgian authorities.

II. Working methods and technique.

David had an extremely laborious working procedure, in which draughtsmanship played a major role. He used mannequins to study individual details such as drapery, and his own Roman sketchbooks (Paris, Louvre; Cambridge, MA, Fogg; Stockholm, Nmus.) or reference books (e.g. Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquée, 1719) to ensure that antique details were accurate. He drew extensively from posed life models, and such drawings would then be squared-up and transferred to the canvas (see fig.). This process can be seen particularly vividly by comparing the finished Oath of the Horatii with the squared drawing of the group of women on the right (Paris, Louvre, RF 4506). He sometimes went so far as to produce drawings of the skeletons of his figures. David also made numerous small oil sketches for his large canvases in order to clarify the composition and lighting. His finished history paintings show his predilection for strong local colour. His figures have a relief-like modelling with impasto highlights and thinly scumbled opaque shadows. David worked on a single passage of a picture at a time, rather than treating all areas at once. There was little underpainting, and the ébauche was little more than a drawing that was completely obliterated by the final paint layer. Such exhaustive preparations meant that very few pentiments are evident. He had little time for recipes for brushwork and handling and wrote to his former pupil Wicar on 14 June 1789, ‘What does it matter if one makes strokes to the right, to the left, up and down or sideways; as long as the lights are in their places, one will always paint well’ (see David, 1880, p. 56). David’s occasional difficulties with perspective are evident in the incorrect orthogonals of the pavement in Belisarius Receiving Alms. He frequently depicted paved floors in order to facilitate the location of figures in space (e.g. the Oath of the Horatii, the Death of Socrates and the Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons). Despite such traditional academic procedures, his compositions were often viewed as unorthodox and anti-academic. Jean-Baptiste Pierre allegedly remarked of the Brutus, ‘You have in your Horatii given us three personages set in the same plane, something never seen before! Here you put your principal actor in shadow…. But where have you seen, for example, that a sensible composition can be made without using the pyramidal line?’ (David, 1880, p. 57). In his portraits David strove towards a tension between the natural and the ideal and gradually evolved the use of a neutral and vibrant background, as in Mme Adélaïde Pastoret and Mme Henriette Verinac (1799; Paris, Louvre).

David’s more talented pupils usually assisted on the large history paintings and occasionally with the portraits as well. Drouais is supposed to have painted the arm of the third Horatii brother and the yellow garment of Sabina in the Oath of the Horatii. Jean-Pierre Franque assisted with the Intervention of the Sabine Women, and Georges Rouget on Le Sacre and Leonidas at Thermopylae. David also engaged his best pupils to paint reductions of his most successful pictures, adding the finishing touches himself and then passing them off as autograph works. That of Belisarius (Paris, Louvre), painted by Fabre in 1784 for the Comte d’Angiviller, and that of the Oath of the Horatii (Toledo, OH, Mus. A.), painted by Girodet in 1786 for the Comte de Vaudreuil, are examples. The exact proportion of pupil–master participation is impossible to establish, however, and these reductions (particularly the Horatii) remain the subject of controversy. A number of artists drew or painted the interior of David’s studios, notably Jean-Henri Cless (fl 1804–11), who drew the Louvre studio in 1804 (Paris, Carnavalet), and Léon-Matthieu Cochereau (1793–1817), who depicted the studio in the Collège des Quatre Nations (now Institut de France) in 1814 (Paris, Louvre).

Jacques-Louis David: Leonidas at Thermopylae, black chalk, squared in black chalk, 16 x 21 5/8 in. (40.6 x 54.9 cm), ca. 1814 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1963, Accession ID:63.1); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

III. Critical reception and posthumous reputation.

David has often been accused of opportunism, largely because he lived through a period of unparalleled social and political upheaval. Certainly, he painted successively for the ancien régime, the Revolution and Napoleon, but all of his conversions appear to have been genuine and not premeditated. There have been many attempts to define the nature of David’s politics. Opinion is sharply divided between those who believe he displayed radical tendencies as early as the 1780s (e.g. Crow) or not until 1790 (e.g. Bordes). Perhaps his clearest characteristic is his extreme pragmatism. What is beyond doubt is that he managed to encapsulate exactly in his painting the different aspirations of successive regimes, and for long periods created his own stylistic parameters. But David’s Neo-classicism was by no means static. There are significant differences in aim displayed in the Oath of the Horatii, the Intervention of the Sabine Women and Leonidas at Thermopylae. His diversity is also apparent in his Empire work: ‘Neo-classical’ would be a singularly inappropriate label for the Coronation of Napoleon in Notre-Dame.

Through his approach to teaching and his legions of pupils, David had an enormous influence not only on French but on European art. He himself wrote, somewhat immodestly, ‘I founded a brilliant school, I painted pictures that the whole of Europe came to study’ (David, 1880, p. 601). But this view is corroborated, albeit critically, by Stendhal, who wrote, ‘The illustrious David has won over Europe with his manner of painting …only England has resisted this conquest’ (Revue Trimestrielle, July–Oct 1828). Ironically, many of the tenets of Neo-classicism, a revolutionary art form in the 1780s and 1790s, became staples in a highly orthodox and conservative form of academicism in the 19th century. To many critics David alone was responsible for a decline in French art, whereby all vigour and expression had been reduced to sterile formulae. In addition, by encouraging an emphasis on the intellectual aspects of painting, he was accused of fostering a neglect of technical expertise in the work of young artists. These criticisms, although mostly false, coupled with his Revolutionary past, ensured that soon after his death he was quickly forgotten. Despite maverick praise, such as Charles Baudelaire’s haunting evocation of the Death of Marat (review in Corsaire Satan, 21 Jan 1846, of the exhibition held in the Bazaar Bonne Nouvelle, Paris), the resurrection of David’s reputation was a slow and painful process, not without bitter controversy. Only since World War II has he been returned to the centre stage of European art.


    There is a substantial holding of David’s writings in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. See also the anonymous works of 1799 and 1814 entered below. For a list of his Revolutionary speeches and reports of 1792–3 see Wildenstein (1973), p. 283. For a large part of his correspondence, see J. L. J. David (1880).


  • Le Tableau des Sabines exposé publiquement au Palais national des sciences et des arts, salle de la ci-devant Académie d’architecture par le citoyen David (Paris, an VIII [1799]) [written by David]
  • P. Chaussard: Le Pausanias français: Etat des arts du dessin en France à l’ouverture du XIX siècle (Paris, 1806), pp. 145–74
  • Explication du tableau des Thermopyles par M. David (Paris, 1814) [written with the help of David]
  • Account of the Celebrated Picture of the Coronation of Napoleon by M. David, First Painter to the Emperor (London, 1821)
  • Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. J. L. David (Brussels, 1824) [written with David’s collaboration]
  • E. J. Delécluze: Louis David, son école et son temps (Paris, 1855)
  • J. L. J. David: Le Peintre Louis David, 1748–1825: Souvenirs et documents inédits (Paris, 1880)
  • D. L. Dowd: Pageant-Master of the Republic: Jacques-Louis David and the French Revolution (Lincoln, NE, 1948) [with valuable essay on sources]
  • L. Hautecoeur: Louis David (Paris, 1954)
  • R. Herbert: J. L. David, Brutus (London, 1972)
  • D. Wildenstein and G. Wildenstein: Documents complémentaires au catalogue de l’oeuvre de Louis David (Paris, 1973) [incl. extensive bibliography but with some omissions]
  • A. Brookner: Jacques-Louis David (London, 1980)
  • A. Schnapper: David: Témoin de son temps (Fribourg, 1980; Eng. trans., New York, 1982)
  • David e Roma (exh. cat. by R. Michel, A. Serullaz and U. van de Sandt, Rome, Acad. France, 1981) [incl. repr. of several valuable documents]
  • P. Bordes: Le ‘Serment du Jeu de Paume’ de Jacques-Louis David: Le Peintre, son milieu et son temps de 1789 à 1792 (Paris, 1983) [amplified version of article in Oxford A.J., iii/2 (1980), pp. 19–25]
  • T. Crow: Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-century Paris (New Haven and London, 1985), pp. 212–41
  • M. C. Sahut and R. Michel: David, l’art et la politique (Paris, 1988)
  • W. Roberts: Jacques-Louis David: Revolutionary Artist (Chapel Hill and London, 1989)
  • David (exh. cat. by A. Schnapper and A. Sérullaz, Paris, Louvre; Versailles, Château; 1989–90)
  • P. Rosenblum: ‘Reconstructing David’, A. America, 78 (1990), pp. 188–97, 257
  • A. Sérullaz: Musée du Louvre, Cabinet des dessins. Inventaire général des dessins: Ecole française, dessins de Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825 (Paris, 1991)
  • D. Johnson: Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis (Princeton, 1993)
  • ‘David contre David’, Proc. 1989 David Colloq., 2 vols (Paris, 1993)