Image-maker to Napoleon. Political exile. Jacques-Louis David was the most famous—and controversial—artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) was the most famous painter in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He breathed new life into history painting with his rigorously constructed compositions, which distilled complex stories to their essential elements. His spare, taut style influenced countless other artists in France and abroad. Passionately committed to artistic freedom and innovation, David experimented constantly with style and subject matter.
David aspired to be not just a painter, but a visual historian of the great men and events of his time. He saw himself as forging the art of the future—an art that would enlighten the public and present role models of heroism and virtue. As a person, David could be petty, graceless, and abrasive. Intensely competitive, he was confident and even boastful of his talent. “My style of painting is nothing less than brilliant,” he wrote a friend in 1794.
Yet David was also a deeply emotional person, close to his wife and greatly concerned for the welfare of their four children. He inspired intense loyalty in his students, many of whom became lifelong friends. Even those who found him difficult were forced to admire his talent.
The art of Jacques-Louis David embodies the style known as Neoclassicism, which flourished in France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. David championed a style of rigorous contours, sculpted forms, and polished surfaces; history paintings, such as his Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (Musée du Louvre, Paris) of 1789, were intended as moral exemplars. He painted in the service of royalty, radical revolutionaries, and an emperor; although his political allegiances shifted, he remained faithful to the tenets of Neoclassicism, which he transmitted to a generation of students, including Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, François Gérard, Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
The completion in 1814 of David’s monumental history painting, Leonidas at Thermopylae (Louvre), coincided with the fall of Napoleon; not surprisingly, the image of the courageous Spartan king, facing imminent defeat in battle, met with Napoleon’s disapproval in the aftermath of his disastrous Russian campaign. The painting, which David had first conceived in 1798 while working on his Intervention of the Sabine Women (Louvre), evolved over a period that witnessed challenges to the stylistic hegemony of Davidian Neoclassicism. In the revolutionary ferment of the 1790s, several of David’s students had already rebelled against their master, notably Girodet, whom David would later describe as a “lunatic” (in 1810, Girodet would triumph over his former teacher in the competition for the Prize of the Decade, awarded to his painting The Deluge [Louvre]). In his Sleep of Endymion of 1791 (Louvre), Girodet emphatically departs from David’s precedent in his sensual handling of the androgynous figure of Endymion and his choice of a mythological subject devoid of moral value. In the late 1790s, a group of David’s students, known as the Primitifs (Primitives) or Barbus (Bearded Ones), rejected the values of Davidian classicism in favor of an art whose linear purity and simplicity recalled archaic Greek vase painting as well as early Renaissance art.
These challenges to the primacy of David’s Neoclassical style set the stage for a radical redefinition of history painting around 1800 in France. Before the Revolution, David’s major history paintings, though often invoked in relation to contemporary events, drew upon subjects from ancient history and distant civilizations (Death of Socrates,); his approach was in keeping with that of the French Academy, which placed history painting at the top of its hierarchy of subjects while scenes from contemporary life were relegated to the bottom order. However, after 1789, the Revolution and its heroes came to the forefront in the art of David and his contemporaries. Capitalizing on this trend, Napoleon Bonaparte, in his dramatic rise to power, marshaled art in service of his regime and commissioned artists to document contemporary history as it unfolded. He appointed David “First Painter to the Emperor” in 1804 and enlisted many of his pupils to chronicle his triumphs. Gros, who had painted Napoleon as a young general in Italy in 1796, reveals his mastery of the Napoleonic propaganda machine in his Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa of 1804 (Louvre), an image from Napoleon’s Middle Eastern campaign. Gros’ portrayal of Napoleon, shown touching the sore of a plague-ridden French soldier, alludes both to images of Christ as healer and the divine touch of kings.
Around 1800, while David and many of his pupils were fueling Napoleon’s propaganda machine, a number of artists in his studio turned to France’s medieval past for inspiration. This group of artists from southern France, which included Pierre Révoil, Fleury Richard, and François-Marius Granet, painted small-scale works rendered with a precise, meticulous finish in what became known as the Troubadour style. Their retrospective subjects coincided with the establishment of Alexandre Lenoir’s Musée des Antiquités et Monuments Français, which opened to the public in 1796 and housed the sculpture from French churches that had been saved from destruction during the Revolution. The monastic interiors that became a specialty of the painter Granet evoke the Catholic past enshrined in Lenoir’s museum. The historicism of the Troubadour style would inform the emerging Romantic aesthetic in the early nineteenth century.
In portraiture, the carefully modeled and polished surfaces of works by Gérard, Gros, and Girodet—all students of David—reflect the legacy of their master. In his 1823 portrait of Madame Reizet, Girodet, whose portraits were in great demand, convincingly renders the varying textures of fur, velvet, lace, and flesh, creating a smooth surface with no visible brushwork. Yet another Davidian, Ingres, who was briefly in David’s studio in the late 1790s, would transform his master’s Neoclassical portrait model in the nineteenth century. While the precise draftsmanship of his portrait drawings attests to his training under David , the stylized contours and anatomical distortions characteristic of his painted portraits subvert David’s model. In his pair of portraits of the Leblancs, Ingres flattens forms and elongates limbs; such stylized abstractions counter the almost hyperrealism of such fabrics as the cashmere shawl and tulle sleeves. He creates a similar dialogue in his portrait of the princesse de Broglie of 1853: the virtuoso rendering of the multiple folds of her silk skirt, the tufted damask chair, and the marabou feathers of her hair ornament counters the mannered elongation of her arms, her seemingly boneless fingers, and her idealized face.
By the 1820s, the new Romantic style, with its free handling of paint and expanded repertoire of subjects, offered an alternative to Davidian Neoclassicism. David himself had been exiled to Belgium in 1816, where he died in 1825, and his studio was run by his loyal pupil Gros until his own death in 1835. In pursuing the stylistic alternative that Romanticism offered, French artists looked beyond their borders, emulating British prototypes, particularly in landscape and portraiture. In addition, the boundaries between Neoclassicism and Romanticism blurred, as evidenced in the works of many of David’s own pupils. By 1840, then, the emergence of an artist such as Théodore Chassériau, whose hybrid style fuses Davidian classicism—which he learned in Ingres’ studio—with the Romantic painterliness and exotic subjects of Eugène Delacroix, captures the contradictory stylistic impulses of his generation.