David, Jacques Louis

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

David, Jacques Louis


Born Aug. 30, 1748, in Paris; died Dec. 29, 1825, in Brussels. French painter.

David studied under the historical painter J. M. Vien at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris (1766–74). His early works, which echo the rococo and show the influence of the ideas of sentimentalism, are traditionally academic (The Combat of Minerva and Mars, 1771, the Louvre, Paris). During 1775–80 the artist studied in Italy, where he discovered antiquity for himself, interpreting it as an example of the civic quality of artistic creativity.

A publicistic tendency and a desire to express heroic, freedom-loving ideals by means of images from antiquity characterized the classicism of the prerevolutionary period, cf which David was the most important representative. The principles of classicism may first be observed in David’s work in the painting Belisarius Asking for Alms (1781, Museum of Fine Arts, Lille), which is distinguished by its austere composition and the precision of its rhythmic structure. The fullest expression of the principles of classicism is found in the work The Oath of the Horatii (1784, the Louvre), which is saturated with a courageous, dramatic quality. A historical painting, it was interpreted socially as a call for struggle. David’s works of the 1780’s (The Death of Socrates, 1787. Metropolitan Museum, New York; and The Lictors Bringing Home to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789, the Louvre) are imbued with loftiness of thought, a theatrical stateliness of the figures’ poses, and a bas-relief quality in the structure of the composition. A three-dimensional, chiaroscuro principle prevails over the principle of color. The portraits dating from the 1780’s and 1790’s emphasize the social essence of the models and embody classical ideas on the energetic and strong-willed man (The Physician A. Leroy, 1783, Fabre Museum, Montpellier).

Inspired by the heroism of the Great French Revolution, David endeavored to create historical paintings based on contemporary subject matter (The Oath of the Tennis Court, an unfinished work of which a sepia sketch has been preserved, 1791, the Louvre). A number of David’s paintings have become monuments to the heroes of the revolution, combining features of portraits and historical paintings. Among them is The Death of Lepeletier de St.-Fargeau (1793), which has not been preserved but which is known from an engraving by P. A. Tardieu in the National Library in Paris and from F. Devosge’s drawing in the Magnin Museum in Dijon. The Death of Marat (1793, Museum of Contemporary Arts, Brussels), with its tragic resonance, extreme laconism, ascetic restraint of color, and sculptured, monumental forms, is also a monument to the revolution.

David was an active figure in the revolution and a member of the Jacobin Convention. He organized mass popular festivities and founded the National Museum in the Louvre. Under his direction the conservative Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was abolished. (David had been a member of the academy since 1784.) After the counterrevolutionary coup d’etat of Thermidor at the end of the 1790’s, David again turned to the dramatic events of ancient history, emphasizing in them the theme of reconciling contradictions and re-creating antiquity as a world of ideal beauty and pure harmony (The Rape of the Sabine Women, 1799, the Louvre). Qualities of abstraction and rational narrative began to appear more frequently in his art.

In 1804. David became Napoleon’s “first artist.” The pictures commissioned by Napoleon, which are cold, affected, motley colored, and compositionally overloaded (for example, The Coronation, 1805–07, the Louvre), reveal the artist’s indifference to the events being depicted. Nevertheless, David strove for an expressive characterization of the individual figures. During 1790–1810 the artist painted numerous portraits, including ceremonial ones (Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800, National Museum of Versailles and Trianon and Madame Récamier, 1800, the Louvre) and more realistic ones approaching the intimate (portraits of the Sériziats, 1795, the Louvre). In 1816 after the restoration of the Bourbons, David was forced to go to Brussels. Among his pupils were A. Gros, F. Gérard, and J. A.D. Ingres.


Rechi i pis’ma zhivopistsa Lui Davida. Moscow-Leningrad, 1933. (Translated from French.)


Zamiatina, A. N. David. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Kuznetsova, I. A. Lui David. Moscow. 1965.
Hautecoeur, L. Louis David. Paris, 1954.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.