Van Gogh •
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Jacques Louis David was born in Paris and first studied with Francois Boucher,
whose influence may be seen in his works until 1770. In 1768, however, David had begun his studies with the Neoclassicist Joseph Marie Vien. A two-time winner of the Prix de Rome, David did not go to Italy until 1775. He remained for five years, studying the works of Caravaggio and other seventeenth-century Italian Baroque artists. David attracted much attention in Rome for the realistic vigor of his series of strong portraits. He became more and more deeply involved, while in Rome, in the Neoclassical aesthetics of Vien, Anton Raphael Mengs, Johann Winckelmann, and Benjamin West. David studied antique sculpture and ancient history and began to choose his subjects from the latter. The work that became the manifesto of Neoclassicism, the "Oath of the Horatii", was painted in 1784-85, on a second visit to Rome. In this and in his next great work, "The Death of Socrates", painted in Paris with figures inspired by classical statues and compositions taken from Roman bas-reliefs, David added two Caravaggiesque touches: sharp lighting that casts clear shadows, and realistic detail. David's art, embodying the ancient civic virtues, became the symbol of the Revolution and its aesthetic doctrines.
David was also active in the political side of the French Revolution where, from about 1787, he was the arbiter of taste and design in
furniture, clothing, and the stage, as actors began to pose in groups similar to those in his paintings. He brought about the downfall of the French Royal Academy, thus freeing artists from its narrow tradition. He taught more than sixty pupils and was imitated by scores of artists. In 1793 David painted the realistic "Death of Marat", a powerful painting closer to the sensibilities of a Caravaggio than to those of antique sculpture. In 1794, while briefly imprisoned, he did a naturalistic landscape view of the Luxembourg Gardens. An enthusiastic Bonapartist, David became the first painter to the Emperor, an officer in the Legion of Honor, and a member of the Institute. With the restoration of the Bourbons, however, he was banished to Belgium for having voted for the death of Louis XVI and it was there that he died. David's strong sculptural painting had replaced the delicate and artificial style of the eighteenth century. Although his strict classicism held back the rise of the Romantic School, he stimulated such artists as Gros and Géricault in their free choice of subjects and in their passionate seriousness. He was thus an important force in the evolution of modern painting.