Born in Paris in 1748, Jacques-Louis David is regarded as one of France’s most influential painters and a staunch supporter of the Neoclassical art movement. While his painting genius was recognized by even his critics, David led a life of controversy for his ardent support of the French Revolution, his friendship with Robespierre, and his approval of the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Among David’s spectacular body of work are the masterpieces The Death of Marat (1793) and The Death of Socrates (1787).
After the age of nine David lived among his wealthy uncles. His father died in a dual and his mother entrusted his education to his uncles who were architects. David attended the College des Quatre-Nations and eventually trained briefly with Francois Boucher and extensively with Joseph-Marie Vien. Upon winning the Prix de Rome in 1774, David went on to study at the Academy in Rome. While in Rome, David cemented his preference for the classical style that he would champion throughout his career. Soon after his return to Paris, the king allowed David to lodge at the Louvre—a coveted privilege that did not win David many friends among his artistic peers. Art scholars reveal that while David was respected for his genius, he was also greatly disliked by other artists. David also had a facial tumor which sometimes made him the subject of ridicule.
David married Marguerite, the daughter of the king’s building contractor, and the pair would eventually have four children. In 1787 David showed The Death of Socrates at the Salon. The critically praised work brought David into comparison with both Michelangelo and Raphael. David received further critical success with The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789) which appealed to the revolutionary fervor of the times. As the French Revolution kicked into full gear, David espoused the ideals of the new republic and embraced the revolution as evidenced by his friendship with Robespierre. Scholars are not altogether certain why David worked so fervently to destroy the monarchy. He voted in the National Convention to approve the execution of King Louis XVI. He was also instrumental in bringing change to the Royal Academy to suit the Revolution’s ideals.
David’s wife divorced him over his National Convention vote as she was a royalist; however, she later remarried him. Many of David’s friends were fervent supporters of the guillotine making them controversial figures prone to retaliatory attacks. In 1793 David’s friend Marat was assassinated by a woman, Charlotte Corday, who was subsequently guillotined for her crime. David immortalized his friend in his masterpiece The Death of Marat. After the fall of Robespierre, David was jailed for his attachment to the bloody regime. David regained favor in France with the rise of Napoleon, however. Napoleon’s admiration of David was somewhat ironic given the fact that David, during his connection with the Revolution’s Committee of Public Safety, actually signed the death warrant of Alexandre de Beauharnais—the first husband of Josephine Bonaparte.
One of David’s most famous works during the Napoleonic era was the Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1807). David’s connection to Napoleon as well as his infamous actions during the French Revolution led to his self-imposed exile to Brussels after the Bourbons returned to power even though Louis XVIII offered him amnesty. David, while already in poor health, died in Brussels after he was struck by a carriage in 1825. Other major works by the artist include Emmanuel –Joseph Sieyes (1817) and Andromache Mourns Hector (1783).