Jacques-Louis David

Awful person, signed hundreds of death warrants
Disclaimer
Francisco Serrador

Contributor

Trivium Art History

Featured Contributor

Born rich, and married even richer, Jacques-Louis David lived a pretty suspenseful life.

First off, his dear old dad was killed in a duel.  He himself got into a sword fight and got sliced in the mouth. Apples and trees, right? He survived, but a tumor grew where the wound healed. It was benign, but got him got him the unfortunate nickname "David of the Tumor" and caused him to suffer from a major speech impediment (a big deal for an opinionated and argumentative Frenchman with a reputation for arrogance). And I mean arrogant. Once, when he failed to win an art prize that he had set his heart on, he tried to starve himself to death.

Fittingly, douche-y David became a close personal friend of one of history's greatest a-holes, Robespierre. After sending over 40,000 people to the guillotine during "the terror", Robespierre got a taste of his own medicine, and had his own head chopped off. David wasn't much better, as a member of the French revolutionary government he signed the death warrants of at least 300 people, including both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He then made a sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine! His nickname in government was "the ferocious terrorist," which I guess is better than David of the Tumor but not by much.

Amazingly, he merely went to jail after the revolution and further survived to become court painter to Napoleon. This in spite of the fact that he had been one of the people who signed the death warrant of the father of Napoleon's wife Josephine. He was exiled when Napoleon fell, and at the ripe old age of 77, in what is perhaps the most anticlimactic event in history, he got run over by a carriage and died. The French refused to let his body be buried in France, so it lies in Brussels. However, someone trying to maintain an exciting story line carved out his heart and buried it separate from his body at a cemetary in Paris.

Here is what Trivium says about Jacques-Louis David


Biography of Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David was a survivor, an ill-tempered chameleon whose mesmerizing colors saved him from prison, earned him a title from an emperor, and lived on through his devoted students and followers.

A Magnificent Education

David was raised by his wealthy uncles after his father was killed in a duel. A stubborn child with a speech impediment and a love of drawing, he was lucky to receive one of history’s best educations in art.

One of David’s distant relatives happened to be François Boucher — one of the era’s most sought-after painters, and for a time David’s tutor. Later, Boucher sent David to learn from Joseph-Marie Vien, another preeminent Rococo artist. Finally, David attended the Royal Academy at the Louvre, where he painted to compete for the Prix de Rome — a scholarship that send the single most promising student to Rome to study ancient classics and the Renaissance masters. He failed three times to win the Prix, throwing tantrums and threatening suicide with each loss. Finally, at 26 years old, David won the Prix with his painting Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus' Disease.

From Academia to Revolution

Rome introduced David to Raphael Mengs and the rigor of academic training, and in 1779 he had the opportunity to tour the recently excavated ruins of Pompeii. On his return to Paris in 1780, his authoritative brush, and his connections from Rome earned him a coveted place as a member of the Royal Academy — the King himself granting David the right to live in the Louvre, take government commissions and and teach up to 50 students. His work at this time shows the profound influence of his classical training in Rome, and bold imaginings of history in works like the Oath of the Horatii and The Death of Socrates.

But violence was brewing in Paris — tension that would explode into the French Revolution. David had become friends with Maximilien Robespierre, at the Jacobin Club, where dissenting thought was stirred. David’s work swung to support the new nationalists, with the monumental work The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons honoring Lucious Junius Brutus, the famous Roman revolutionary. This work was a clear declaration of revolutionary support, and was removed from display by the French royals. But David had played his cards wells, and became a leader of the revolution alongside Robespierre. David would vote in the National Convention to execute King Louis XVI, become a dictator of the arts under the French Republic and commemorate the formative moment of the revolution in “The Oath of the Tennis Court”.

First Painter to the Emperor

After Robespierre's fall from power, David was imprisoned twice, where he developed a new “Grecian Style” of painting for “The Intervention of the Sabine Women” that called for peace in France. The statuesque forms caught the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte — who inducted David into his propaganda machine. At 56 years old, David became the "First Painter to the Emperor" and refined what would be known as his ‘Empire Style’, a palette of warm Venetian color and polished surfaces. He would paint the highlights of Napoleon’s reign including the Emperor’s coronation and victory at the Battle of Marengo.

Once last time, a power shift in France would force David to pivot. With the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty — King Louis XVIII generously overlooked David’s vote to execute his predecessor, and offered David the role of court painter. But the strain of politics was too much, and David chose exile, settling into a quiet life in Brussels. Here in solitude he painted his magnum opus — Mars being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces which drew his former students from far and wide. David would die just a year later in a carriage accident, his body buried in Brussels, but his heart returned to Paris and buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.


Learn more about Jacques-Louis David and other artists at Trivium Art History

comments powered by Disqus