The French artist David was the most famous Neo-classical painter of his time. David won wide acclaim for his work on classical themes where his sense of moral rectitude, and heroic grandeur, caught and revealed the changing moral climate of a country plunging into the turmoil of the French Revolution.

Jacques Louis David was born in Paris in 1748. His father was killed in a duel when he was 9 and thereafter he was brought up by his two uncles who were wealthy architects. They sent the young man to the College of the Four Nations where he studied the classics and drawing. He also learnt to fence there and it was during one of these lessons he was slashed so badly in the face that, for the rest of his life, it gave him difficulty in eating or speaking. Moreover, as a result of this injury, he suffered from a growth or tumour on his face which is why he was sometimes referred to as “David of the Tumor”. While learning his trade at the College he was laughed at and bullied by the other pupils because of his facial deformity which also impeded his speech. To get away from this he often hid behind the teacher’s chair where he would draw cartoons of his tormentors, instead of taking notes and learning the lessons.

David’s drawing ability was so good that his uncles agreed to let him further his art studies under the Rococo painter Francois Boucher. His frivolous and titillating mythological scenes had once been ‘all the rage’ but now, in the more serious climate of the Enlightenment, they were being censured on moral grounds and were going out of fashion. Boucher realized that his mode of work wouldn’t pay its way anymore and he had the good sense to send David on to study under the painter Joseph-Marie Vien who practiced the austere Neo-classical style. David worked hard and entered the painting competition held by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture for the Roman Prize. This was a government scholarship that provided time out in Italy and also guaranteed lucrative commissions when the victorious artist returned home to France.

David attempted to win the Roman Prize 5 times but failed. At each failure he became increasingly frustrated with the Academy for denying him the award and this dissatisfaction sowed the seeds of a long-standing grudge against the institution. Finally, in 1774, David won the competition and went to Rome with his tutor Vien who had been appointed as the new director of that city’s French Academy of Art. David’s fellow students found him shy, awkward and difficult to get along with which is not surprising considering his earlier experiences at his old school. While he was in Rome he studied the old masters, particularly the serene classicism of Nicolas Poussin and the dramatically realistic paintings of Caravaggio. Both would play a large part in his future work. At this time, the study of ancient Rome, its literature and its art and artifacts had been the ‘big thing’ among artists and the intelligentsia. David had stated that he wouldn’t be interested in any of this because, to him, the past was dead and gone. However, when he actually arrived in Rome he changed his conception of its ancient past and filled up his notepads with hundreds of sketches of its ruins and its ancient works.

Rome intrigued David with its combination of Renaissance and antique art while the works recovered from the likes of the old city of Pompeii filled him with fascination. While he lived in Italy, David visited a number of ruined sites and viewed many antique objects. He later said that whenever he stood and looked closely at these old vases, figurines, statues and wall paintings, he felt as if someone had just removed cataracts from his eyes to let him see pure beauty for the first time ever. It was sights like these that prompted him to study the writings of the German art historian Johann Winckelmann whose Neo-classical doctrines had been developed in Rome. He’d published a book which contained the phrase ‘’noble simplicity and calm grandeur’’, to sum up all of his ideas on classical art. The first painter to take up Wincklemann’s theory had been Anton Raphael Mengs who imbibed his theories into his own work. This was the beginning of Neo-classicism which came about partly as a genuine desire to re-create the art of ancient Greece and Rome.

The artist lived in Rome for 5 years before returning home to Paris in 1780. When he did, he set out to revolutionize the art world with his newly developed concept of Neo-classic art as a style which embodied the eternal ideas of simplicity, moral rectitude, and heroic grandeur. His first work in Paris, entitled ‘’ Belisarius Begging for Money’’, expressed these sentiments in the tragic tale of the Roman general who was reduced to blindness and beggary through a combination of other people’s jealousy, lies and betrayal. Belisarius’ innate nobility would not allow him to blame either the gods or those who were really responsible for his downfall.

David’s new manner of painting moralistic stories received the approval of King Louis XV1 who granted him the prestigious privilege of being allowed to live and work in the Palace of the Louvre. Now that he was ‘on his way’, so to speak, David married into the family of a wealthy and influential building contractor before beginning his second piece in the Neo-classical style. This was Andromache Mourning Hector, where he instilled grand pathos into her sadness over the death of her husband, the Trojan hero Hector. This work brought David election to the Royal Academy and a commission from the government to paint a scene involving any ancient Roman theme. David decided that, to get the authenticity he wanted, he would have to go back to Rome and he returned there with his wife and three of his students,

The result of David’s second trip to Rome was his famous Oath of the Horatii. This work tells the story of how, when the city of ancient Rome was under threat of extinction from its enemy Alba, the three Horatii brothers swore to their father to defend it to the death; and this is what happened for although the city was saved, the brothers paid for this with their lives. David’s illustration of the brothers oath shows them stretching out their right hands to their father and swearing to die for Republican Rome. The heroic order of this work, which represents the unity of men in the service of a patriotic ideal, is simple, severe, and uncompromising in its political message. The painting was highly topical in its expression of Republican rather than aristocratic sympathies and David went on to paint more of the same kind.

When David’s painting of the ‘Horatii’ arrived in Paris it caused a sensation at the Salon Exhibition of 1785. At first, it was seen simply as a manifesto for an artistic revival that would cure Europe of its addiction to the dainty curves and the bedroom themes of the Rococo style. However, people began slowly to realise that this work was also a public statement that might help to put an end to the corrupt and effete government of the aristocracy – if it could be replaced by a return to the stern, self-sacrificing morals attributed by David’s painting to the people of the ancient Republic of Rome. These sentiments were taboo to the high and mighty who got the Academy to ban David’s work from public view. Nevertheless, prints of the painting were distributed to thousands throughout the country and David became a cultural hero in France and was referred to in some quarters as the messiah of liberty and freedom. This was at a time when the increasingly prosperous bourgeoisie resented its exclusion from political power and positions of honour. The peasantry too, who fed the country with their produce and made up the mass of the people, were also aware of their disenfranchised situation and were less and less willing to support the anachronistic and burdensome feudal system. Also, the government was bankrupt at a time of crop failures which, coming on top of a long period of economic difficulties, made the majority of the population particularly angry and ready for rebellion.

The turmoil in France came at the time when David had painted ‘’The Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons’’. This was another lesson in Republican self-sacrifice where the Roman Consul Brutus had condemned his two sons to death for treachery to their country. They’d tried to overthrow the People’s government and restore the monarchy, and this is why the patriotic Brutus had ordered their execution. His action implied to the viewer that every true Republican citizen should be willing to sacrifice his all for the newly desired French People’s State.

David’s work had an unexpected political significance for, when the Royal Academy again banned the masses from viewing his work, people were outraged and lobbied the government for its exhibition whereupon it relented and let it be put on public view. The theme of rule by the people and not by the aristocracy was something which sent a clear and frightening message to the present governing classes. It was also a prediction of the future when, in 1789, the people of France threw out the aristocracy and ran the country themselves after the Storming of the Bastille in Paris. David’s picture also had another, more un-dramatic side effect for, through its presumed accurate depiction of life in ancient Rome it began the extensive influence he was to have on French fashion. For instance, up-to-date homes started to display imitations of his ancient furniture; men cut their hair short (in the ancient style) while women adopted the dress and coiffures of the women of Rome.

During the early years of the new Republic, David became friends with the likes of the politicians Robespierre and Marat who were two of the leading figures of the French Revolution. While other artists were running away from the growing slaughter and bloodshed, David stayed behind to help destroy the old order and became an energetic example of the politically committed artist. For example, when he was elected as a Deputy to the National Convention in 1792, he voted for the execution of the king, Louis XV1. He was the last Bourbon regent before the monarchy was abolished in 1792 and he and his queen, Marie-Antoinette, were guillotined on charges of counterrevolution.

Under the royalty, David would have had many more opportunities open to him than there ever would be by the new order but his love for the classical idea of rule by and for the people overcame any ideas of riches and advancement. Unfortunately, David’s royalist-supporting wife didn’t share his enthusiasm for a country run by the hoi-polloi and she divorced him and left France. In the meantime, through his friendship with Robespierre and Marat, David became the head of the arts where he turned his vengeance on the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. This attack was caused primarily by the hypocrisy of the organization and its personal opposition against his work. Worse of all, the Academy was chock full of royalists, and David’s attempt to reform it did not go over well with the members. However, the deck was stacked against this symbol of the old regime, and the National Assembly ordered it to make changes to conform to the new constitution – or else!

David now began work on something that would later come back to haunt him: propaganda for the new republic. He became responsible for most of the art programmes in France including the setting up of huge governmental promotional occasions such as the ‘Festival of the Supreme Being’; the erecting of Egyptian-type obelisks in every province of the State, and the staging of the grandiose funerals that the new government gave to its martyrs. For instance, when the revolutionary French writer Voltaire had died in 1778, the authorities had denied him a church burial. He was a crusader against tyranny, bigotry, and cruelty and his radical outporings were feared by the ruling classes of Europe. He’d become the ordinary Frenchman’s champion and so his denial of a clerical burial was their way of daming his memory.

After the Revolution, the new government decided that Voltaire should be buried in the Pantheon in Paris – which formally had been used to inter the kings and great statemen of France. David was appointed to set up a parade through the streets of Paris to bury the “Father of the Revolution” and this was the first of many that he organized for the republic. David’s Republican inspiration in painting is mainly represented by ‘The Dead Marat’, which was sketched at the scene of his demise just shortly after he was stabbed to death in his bath by the 21 year-old Charlotte Corday. Marat and David had been close friends and this simple picture shows the dying man as the painter had found him – hanging half way out of his bath.

When Louis XV1 was executed by the guillotine, war was declared against France by almost every major power in Europe. The country became paranoid from fear of aristocratic plots, third columnists and traitors which helped bring about the creation of the Committee for Public Safety. They decided to make “Terror” the order of the day and to take harsh measures against those suspected of being enemies of the Revolution. During its iniquitous ascendancy, known to history as the ‘Reign of Terror’, David was one of those who ordered the arrest and execution of over 17,000 people in Paris alone. In fact, so many of them were condemned to death that there was no room to hold them in the prisons and it was decided to kill them in large batches – to solve the overcrowding. Some of them were lined up in the abattoirs of Paris and killed by butchers in the same fashion as they slaughtered animals. Others were shackled together and crammed into old boats which were then sunk in the River Seine. The rest were simply murdered in prison without being tried.

Even so, these methods of death didn’t solve the overcrowding until the invention of the guillotine where this fast, portable head-chopper helped crack the problem. The Reign of Terror lasted 2 years until it turned on its own instigators and it was finally stood down. For example, Robespierre was condemned and David was very lucky not to be executed himself. He was to be tried on the same day that the former leader of the Terror was brought to court but claimed to be too sick to appear. This saved him from the guillotine and, instead of certain execution, he was sent to prison for 6 months in 1795. In his hour of trouble, his ex-wife loyally returned to Paris and he re-married her in prison – this time for the rest of their lives.

On David’s release from jail, he spent most of his time teaching art to students with the same energy he had devoted to revolutionary politics. Eventually, he was to be responsible for the training and indoctrination of Neo-classicism to hundreds of young painters from all over Europe. Howsoever, in 1799 David broke away from his quiet role as a tutor of art and made a spectacular re-entry into public notice with a gigantic canvas called the ‘Intervention of the Sabine Women’. This work shows the moment when these women halted a battle between their new Roman husbands and their Sabine male relatives who had come on an unwanted rescue mission. In its early existence, the city of Rome had a shortage of women which it remedied by stealing from its next door neighbour – the Sabine state. By the time their army was organized enough to attack Rome, the women had fallen in love with their foreign husbands and so had intervened in the battle to stop the bloodshed. The work was regarded by many as a plea for the people of France to re-unite after the bloodshed of the revolution.

Although David’s ‘Sabine Women’ won praise for the elegance of its figures, and approval for its supposed theme of reconciliation, unfortunately it attracted most attention in the newspapers because of the nakedness of his ancient warriors. Where journalists had proudly nicknamed him the ‘Robespierre of the Brush’, they now cheekily began to call the painter ‘Our Raphael – without the Trousers’. By this time France was ruled by its First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had revolutionized its military organization and training and made the country a force to reckon with. He admired David’s work and, seeing the possibilities for self-aggrandizement in the artist’s heroic bravado, he commissioned him to paint an epic version of the time he crossed the Alps with the entire French army and defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1801.

Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps was, in reality, not as grandiose as David’s finished picture suggests. The great war leader was afraid of heights and so he had traveled over the mountain paths on an old, slow, sure-footed mule. In any event, he asked the artist to ‘beef up’ the incident and David obliged by painting the military man at the top of the Alps on a fiery white steed which rears up and paws at the air as he points the way forward to his loyal men. For this high-flown work David was appointed as the emperor’s official court painter until he was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, lost his position, and was sent into exile on the island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

After Napoleon’s defeat David had fled to Brussels in Belgium knowing that when the Bourbons returned to power, he would be proscribed for being a revolutionary who had voted for the death of the former king. Even when the new monarchy granted him amnesty and offered him his old job back as painter to the court, he knew well that he would never be forgiven, nor could he ever return home. Instead, he stayed in self-exile in Brussels where he created his last great work, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces. Of this work he wrote: “This is the last picture I want to paint… and afterwards I will never again pick up my brush.” And he never did. He spent the rest of his time visiting the theatre which he loved and it was on one of these occassions, that he was run over and killed by a carriage at the age of 77 in 1825.

Like Voltaire before him, David’s body was refused burial in France, for having been a regicide of King Louis XVI. Instead, he was interred in Brussels Cemetery, while his heart was allowed to be buried at Père Lachaise in Paris.