Born on August 30, 1748, Jacques-Louis David was the leading painter of the Neoclassical movement – a reaction against the Rococo art and interior design in France. Preoccupied with drawing from an early age, David studied under Joseph-Mari Vien at the Académie Royale in 1766 and won the Prix de Rome art scholarship to the French Academy in Rome in 1774.
David returned to Paris in 1780 where he prospered. He was made a member of the Royal Academy and exhibited successfully at the Salon. His paintings were interpreted as moral allegories of the political events and the corruption of the aristocracy of the time. His neoclassical style – rigorous contours, sculpted forms, even lighting, polished surfaces, and pure colours, were admired and would set the standard for academic painting for decades to come.
In the 1790s, David’s paintings served the aims of the French Revolution by glorifying its leaders and martyrs. He painted portraits of the Revolutionary government’s leaders and designed their festivals and funerals. He was active in the Jacobin Club – the largest and most powerful political club of the Revolution. He was closely allied with Maximilien Robespierre, one of the Revolution’s most influential figures. He was also president of the National Convention and voted for the execution of Louis XVI. David was a key figure in the attack against the Académie Royale that in part led to its abolishment in 1794. After Robespierre’s loss of power, David was denounced as “tyrant of the arts” and was imprisoned.
In the late 1790’s, David formed a new alliance with Napoléon Bonaparte who supplied David with large commissions and in 1804, was appointed first painter to the Emperor. After Napoléon’s defeat in 1816, and the reinstatement of the Monarchy, David chose exile over court painter and spent the last years of his life in Brussels, Belgium where he painted portraits and mythological subjects.
Although David’s political allegiances shifted over the course of his life, he remained faithful to the style of Neoclassicism which he passed on to a generation of students, as well as to most 19th century painters.
Jacques-Louis David died on December 29, 1825. He was denied a burial in France.