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    Jacques Louis David – French Painter Essay

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    Jacques Louis David was a highly influential French painter in the neoclassical style, considered to be one of the most prominent of his time. In the late 1780s, his celebrated historical paintings marked a drastic change from the Rococo style of love and affection to the neoclassical style of moral behavior and virtue. Such new themes in paintings were a result of writings by academic scholars such as Denis, Diderot, and Winckelmann. David proved to be more than just a history painter though, as he was also one of the well-known leaders of the Jacobin party in the French Revolution.

    It was events leading up to the revolution that began David on his journey of political propaganda in artwork that set him apart from other artists of his time. This use of propaganda would ultimately lead to his eventual imprisonment on multiple occasions, although he never would face the guillotine as many others would. In fact, after the Reign of Terror, of which David was a major promoter, David’s influential propaganda painting abilities helped him not only receive recognition, but commissions from Napoleon Bonaparte, the rising leader of The Consulate. The focus of these paintings would not be on political revolution however, but instead on peace and acceptance of the new government in France.

    Nevertheless, David’s use of propaganda around the time of the French Revolution through history paintings had a major impact on the way in which art developed during the neoclassical period. Perhaps one of David’s most famous works, The Oath of the Horatii, was an influential painting in the neoclassical era for many artists and was also equally important to a troubled French society prepared for revolution. The historical background of David and the development of the Oath of the Horatii demonstrate not only how influential David was to the developing neoclassical art at the time but also how significant he was in starting the French Revolution. Jacques Louis David was born on August 30, 1748.

    His family was generally well-to-do and enjoyed a comfortable living. However, when he was just nine years old his father was killed in a dual. 1 Soon after the incident, David was sent away by his mother to live with his wealthy uncles, hoping he could enjoy a better living. Trained in architecture, they sent David to the College des Quatre Nation, part of the University of France, in order to pursue his education and become an architect. However, architecture bored David and because of this he neglected his studies. In addition to this, David had also been injured in a sword fight when he was younger and suffered a speech impediment from a gash that he had received in his cheek.

    2 This caused David to be less social and more independent from the rest of the students at the University. Nevertheless, David was constantly drawing in school filling up his class notes with sketches and drawings of various subjects. David was convinced that he wanted to pursue a career as an artist despite others who discouraged him. He eventually went to live with Francois Boucher, a distant relative of his mother’s side. Boucher was amongst the most famous painters in France at the time with his painting The Gracious Shepherd (1736-39), which won him much recognition as its amorous and sensual themes evoked great pleasure to the aristocracy and upper class (Figure 1). Although Boucher painted Rococo in subject matter, his style gave way to much more of a classical approach.

    Boucher was not responsible for training David as he instead sent him to learn from Joseph Marie Vien (1716-1809), a lesser known painter who embraced the classical reaction to Rococo. After studying at the College des Quatre Nations, David then pursued an education at the French Royal Academy. During this time he would stay with Michel Jean Sedaine (1719-1797), a well-known playwright. This was a crucial and beneficial period for David as he was able to learn and mingle with other artists of his time. David was not generally recognized for his talents at the academy initially, as he won no awards or scholarships and this angered him because he knew of his potential.

    Finally, in 1774, after four failed attempts, David won the Prix-de-Rome which allowed him free travel to Rome, where he would study at the French Academy there. David’s trouble with winning the award was solely due to Vien, who decided the victor every year. He chose not to pick David initially because other artists who had been attempting to win for years took priority. Vien believed David needed to wait and earn his turn4. Nevertheless, David’s trip to Rome proved to be initially difficult for him. He was exposed to all of the classical painting, art, and sculpture that was beginning to gain strength.

    David’s training as a Rococo artist initially caused him to dismiss the classical antiquity that was apparent in Roman art and architecture. However, as he stayed longer he became increasingly interested in the work of the Roman artist Antonio de Correggio (1489-1534) and his fresco paintings in the Parma cathedral (Figure 2). 5 This caused David to question his training as a Rococo artist and become increasingly interested in classical art. Fortunately for David he arrived at a time when many artists were practicing and introducing Neoclassical ideas into their artwork. During his stay in Rome, David mainly focused on drawing. One contemporary artist of the time, Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798), had a profound impact on David’s practice of adding contour to his drawings.

    6 Contour is simply the outline that is traced over an object or figure and many enlightenment thinkers such as Winckelmann believed this was the road that would lead to the greatest artistic expression. Hamilton’s Death of Lucretia (1760, Figure 3) was certainly an inspiration to David when looking for direction on contour and even more critical when attempting to paint his Oath of the Horatii. Nevertheless, Hamilton was also able to invoke in David an interest for Homeric subject matter. 8 Due to this David would complete his drawing The Combat of Diomedes and Minerva (1777, Figure 4). A drawing depicting a number of incidents from the Trojan War, Diomedes was a character from Homer’s Iliad who fought alongside Achilles against the Trojans. He was favored by the Greek goddess Athena, who in David’s image is the Roman equivalent to Minerva.

    Nevertheless, the drawing of Diomedes was useful in the sense that it aided David in familiarizing himself with Italian art and its classical tradition. David also found inspiration for frieze-like characters from the Column of Trajan (Figure 5), a triumphal column in Rome that commemorates the Emperor Trajan and his victories in the Dacian Wars (c. 86-87 A. D. ). David’s close attention to detail in his figures was derived from this column and this is how David brought his images to life.

    However, this was not the only work that gave David influence. There were many others such as Michelangelo’s Ignudi (1477, Figure 6) in the Sistine Chapel and Guilio Romano’s Battle of Constantine (1570’s, Figure 7) from the Vatican. 9 Nevertheless, while in Rome, David was also able to study and analyze the methods of Raphael and Caravaggio. Caravaggism was actually its own historical style that was characterized by chiaroscuro: the use of light and dark to create clear tonal contrasts. 0 He was also able to absorb the effects that were characterized by the discovery of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii (two Roman cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius). A conclusion from all of this is that it can be seen that Roman art was an influential force in David’s life that was responsible and helpful in his dynamic switch from Rococo painter to neoclassical artist.

    When returning to Paris, David was able to evoke and use a lot of the skills and techniques that he had learned while traveling on the Prix-de-Rome. David even began to decorate his studio with objects from classical antiquity and began requiring all of his students to learn and speak Latin. It was at this time that David would receive a royal commission for a work depicting Hector (a Horatii brother) condemned to death for the murder of his sister Camilla, while being defended by his father the moment at which the lictors (policeman) are about to arrest him. Livy originally told the story that would soon be the inspiration for David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784, Figure 8). It shows the conflict that comes about between Rome and Alba. According to the story the leaders of the warring Rome and Alba decided to settle their conflicts not as nation fighting nation, but as brothers fighting brothers.

    Rome chose three representatives, the Horatii brothers, while Alba chose their three representatives the Curatii brothers. The drama of the battle was heightened by the fact that there were other familial connections involved as well. Camilla, the sister of a Horatii was also engaged to one of the Curatii brothers, and Sabina, the wife of the youngest Horatii was the sister of a Curatii brother. The battle would continue until only one Horatii brother was left standing. Victoriously returning to Rome he was cursed by his sister Camilla who was mourning the loss of her fiancé.

    This enraged the Horatii brother as his own sister was more concerned about her fiancé than her country and he killed her because of her sadness. Nevertheless, this scene of the Horatii brother killing his sister while the lictors come to arrest him is the initial scene David was asked to paint. This story was not new to David however, as he had been thinking about it for some time before the commission. 1 David would accept the commission nevertheless, and be able to return back to Rome as he believed it was essential to ensuring the accuracy of the painting was perfect. David would perform many sketches before completing the final product. In one of David’s earlier sketch The Death of Camilla (1783, Figure 9), he depicts a scene in which Hector’s (the victorious Horatii brother) father, Horace, defends his actions of killing his sister Camilla as a group of lictors come to arrest him.

    The father’s right hand is extended outward towards the lictors in defense of his son. His other hand is simply placed around Hector’s shoulder. Hector has a wider stance with his hand placed on his hip and elbow out, resembling an akimbo stance, while his right hand is clenched tight against his body armored as if he just returned from battle. 12 Hector, Camilla, Sabina, and Horace are all etched completely while the crowd ascending the stairs is lightly sketched. This helps draw the viewer’s attention more to the main figures and less to the unimportant crowd.

    13 Due to his stay in Rome, David was able to accomplish this overall effect by the use of contour. The figure of Camilla in the painting is especially emphasized as she lies dead draped across two stairs in a dramatic pose. Sabina sits next to Camilla in a Roman fashion of a tombstone weeper. The painting ultimately depicts father and son united as one against two helpless women. This depiction is largely attributed as to why David did not want to paint this particular scene.

    In another drawing David shows the immediate aftermath of Camilla’s murder in The Killing of Camilla (1783, Figure 10). Similar to the Figure 9 this scene takes place in a large crowded square with many viewers. David researched intensively for this piece and evidence for this can be seen through the alarmed postures of the crowd. 14 As opposed to Figure 9 where Hector appeared as more of a victim, hiding behind his father who is defending him, here (Figure 10) Hector appears more aggressive.

    In this drawing he is standing triumphantly over the dead body of Camilla with his sword raised confidently in his right hand while his left hand points accusingly towards the corpse. In the background, two soldiers appear holding up the armor of the defeated Curatii as if they are attempting to justify his actions. Here Camilla is lying face up and although somewhat virtually portrayed, she still looks like a hopeless victim of murder. Ultimately the hero aspect of the piece is skewed by the unflattering portrayal of a helpless women being murdered by a ferocious man. David was urged by many of his colleagues to change the scene of this painting (Figures 9 and 10), an idea David already had in place. He chose to depict the oath (Figure 8) because in it he was able to express masculine power and splendor.

    In essence David did not make the painting for the king, but instead for himself. This decision caused him to make three preparatory drawings before he would complete the final painting. The first drawing shows an older Horace slightly bent forward presenting his sons with their swords. The sons reach down to grab their swords and in reaction to the oath a female to the right faints. 15 In fact all of the women in the painting are either mourning or weeping.

    In David’s second drawing (Figure 11 top), Horace is less bent and has his right hand raised in the air. The Horatii brothers are roughly the same, but this time they all have helmets. The two brothers placed behind Hector, the surviving Horatii, now appear as shadows to his form, with all of their hands extending horizontally. 16 The third and final drawing (Figure 11 bottom) more accurately represents David’s final product. As a result, there are some differences to note from the previous two drawings to that of the third drawing and of the final painting.

    First is that David eliminated a stairwell that was located underneath the far right arch in Figure 11 (top). In addition, he also eliminated a man who was standing next to the weeping women on the far right of Figure 11 (top). It is believed that the inclusion of this figure directly compromises the different states of emotions of the two sides which is why it was left out of the painting. 17 The decorative chair was also replaced by drapery covered furniture.

    Nevertheless, the three main groups are all outlined by the arches in the background. This helps each group stand out against the backdrop so viewers can see the varying emotional states of the characters; the courage of the Horatii brothers, the proudness of the father, and the sadness of the sisters and loved ones. Unlike the previous two paintings which depicted the murdered Camilla, this one presents a complete range of emotion of the two genders. The three brothers are presented with their arms reaching for their swords, held by their father, who is holding the swords by the blades with his bare hand. There is clear definition in the muscles and their stance makes the brothers seem not only fierce but unstoppable as well. In contrast, the women are the exact opposite.

    They appear more soft and curvy and are so overridden with sadness that they are unable to watch the oath that is taking place. However, their faces being hidden also clearly depicts the social norms of the day. Many enlightenment thinkers believed women were unable to understand the heroic act of self-sacrifice, which is believed to be why they were portrayed in this fashion by David. 18 David also did a reduced version of Oath of the Horatii (511/4 in. x 655/8 in. ) that was commissioned by the Comte de Vaudreuil (1786, Figure 12).

    This version was painted in 1786, just two years after that of the original work. However, there had been some debate over who actually completed this piece. At certain times it was extremely difficult to distinguish David’s reworks from his original works as well as those of his students. Nevertheless, there are some differences that do seem to stand out in this reduced version. Despite it reduced size there are some noticeable changes to the colors used in the painting; causing it to look duller and show less of a licked-finish, characteristic of many of David’s art work. Another key change is that a fallen distaff is present at the feet of the women.

    There have been several speculated reasons as to why David would include this in the painting. The most common reason is that it served as a metaphor for the dramatic or maternal realm. This discarded spinning tool foreshadows the loss of loved ones as well as emphasizing the emotional wreck of the women. 19 Despite these changes the painting was still accepted by the commissioner. Oath of the Horatti is often described as the “manifesto  of neoclassical art mainly due to its focus on the illustration of courage and virtue. 20 The work provides the audience with a scenario that is ultimately about the founding of Rome, which exemplified truth, rationalism, and nobility of virtue and of character.

    However, these ideals were despised by the French nobility who saw them as detrimental to the state. This reason is significant in explaining why this painting was seen to have a great influence in the French Revolution of 1789. One of the key arguments among many scholars today is whether or not Oath of the Horatii should be considered a revolutionary piece at all. However, it can be seen that political concerns of the time did inflict very diverse interpretations of the painting. One argument for diversity in meaning is David’s use of Roman men and women in place of French citizens so as to hide his revolutionary ideals behind an allegorical backdrop. Another argument is that the final painting of Oath of the Horatii was the initial act of defiance.

    As referenced earlier, the king initially asked for the painting to be about Horace being taken away by the lictors. To validate this notion David did write to a friend Marquis de Bievre, that he did not make a painting for the king but solely for himself. 1 There has been debate that these feelings by David do not necessarily imply desire for revolution, but possibly just differences in aesthetic opinion and artistic tastes. From what we know about David and his involvement in the French Revolution though it can be inferred that the piece was definitely revolutionary in context.

    Nevertheless, this work was the beginning of David’s numerous paintings that would have major impacts on other neoclassical artist’s at this time. Neoclassicism was becoming extremely important in France at the time David was there as the movement started in direct reaction to the rococo style of love and affection. After the French Revolution France became a democracy putting an end to the monarchy. Although this would not last extensively, as Napoleon had other plans, the new leaders of France wished to model the government on the high virtues and morals present in ancient Rome. Therefore, Neoclassical artists were commissioned to create paintings and sculptures that depicted inspirational scenes from Roman history.

    This proved to be beneficial to not only David, but his students also as they were well prepared in the art of classical antiquity. Some of David’s students included Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, Francois Gerard, Antoine-Jean Gros, Antonio Canova, Joseph Marie Vien, Robert Adam, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Josiah Wedgewood, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Of these the most successful at sticking to Davidian Neoclassicism would be Ingres whose painting The Apotheosis of Homer (1827) (Figure 13) clearly shows many traits characteristic to that of David himself. As described before, Homer was an ancient poet who recorded the stories of the Trojan Wars and the journeys of Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas in his three novels; The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. This painting depicts an image of Homer (central) surrounding himself with the most brilliant men of both Rome and Greece.

    Ingres performed many sketches for this piece and was able to receive inspiration from older paintings done by Raphael and Poussin. The Homeric subject matter as well as the return to classical antiquity were characteristic qualities of David and demonstrate the influence of David on Ingres. The painting is also that of a history painting and was thus widely accepted by the Royal Academy. Nevertheless, out of all of David’s students Ingres would prove to be the one that would hold on to the classical style throughout his career. Another example of David’s influence would be present in Antonio Canova’s Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1803-06) (Figure 14). This was a sculpture that was commissioned by Napoleon after the French Revolution.

    Although not widely accepted by Napoleon it still demonstrated much influence from David, most notably that it was using mythology (Napoleon as Mars) in order to portray Napoleon in a certain way. 2 This can be seen to relate to Oath of the Horatii, which is hiding its characters behind allegorical figures as well. Also noteworthy is the idealized figure of Mars showing the perfect male figure with muscles emphasized and form perfected. 23 This figure could as easily be put into the painting of the Oath of the Horatii, or any piece depicting a hero, and would fit well as it shows and ideal male figure. Another consideration must be given to that of Davidian portraiture.

    Many of his students began to follows David’s strong use of contour in his painting and his realness of his subjects. This is characteristic of David’s licked finished which is visible in the Oath of the Horatii. David’s student Anne Louis Girodet also clearly was able to create this licked finish. At this time Girodet’s portraits were in great demand, convincingly rendering the various textures of fur, velvet, lace and flash as can be seen in his Madame Jacques-Louis Etienne Reizet (1823). This painting (Figure 15) demonstrates all of the above qualities and has successfully hidden any signs of brushstroke.

    The Adam’s brothers were also extremely influenced by David’s work and Robert Adam was even a student of David. Robert Adam was largely famous in Britain but also all of Europe for his rich and extravagant interior designs that he placed in the homes of the rich. One of his most famous was that of the Etruscan Dressing Room (1775-76, Figure 16) in the Osterley Park House which actually had little Etruscan art and instead more inspiration from Greek and Roman architecture as well as Renaissance and classical arts. 24 This influence came from that of David. Nevertheless, from David’s student it can be easily seen that David did not only just influence the painting world but also that of sculpture and design.

    In other words, David was influencing not only art but French culture in general. Many of his students would stick to their artistic style they learned and use this for their entire career. One point that can be clearly made from all of this nevertheless is that David has a major influence on other neoclassical artists of the time and that much of this influence came from his painting of Oath of the Horatii. Dorothy Johnson’s book Jacques-Louis David: New Perspectives has many good interpretations of Oath of the Horatii.

    In the book she states that “The Oath was a revolutionary call to a physical (and concomitant moral) regeneration and perfectibility of the self . 25 Based on this line a connection can be made as to why the oath could be responsible for prerevolutionary radical ideas. In opposition to this the English historian Fred Haskell argued that no critic or viewer actually paid attention to the subject matter present in the painting. He thought there were two other important aspects to consider. 26 First, the excessive uniformity of form and color and secondly, the ignorance of David’s composition as he places the characters into three distinctive areas. Both of these statements above show the attention that Oath of the Horatii brought to the art world as it was viewed differently by different groups of people.

    One idea can be confirmed despite all of the mixed feelings of Oath of the Horatii. It evoked two different types of feelings between the upper and lower classes. To the upper class Oath of the Horatii showed loyalty to the crown, nation, and king of France. It represented men willing to fight for the greater good of their country and who were respectful to their king Louis XVI. However, the lower class viewed this entirely different as they saw this as a call to stand up and fight for what they believe in, against a powerful monarchy and king who are not for the people. They saw it as their hope to fight for a cause that they strongly believed in.

    This view by the lower class is what would ultimately lead to revolution in France. Overall, the best support for this piece being revolutionary is that it was presented at the right time. At the time this work was displayed in the Salon of 1785 in the Louvre, France was undergoing financial crisis and famine. France, having helped America gain its independence from Britain, had stretched its financial portfolio too far and by doing so had to impose higher taxes on the people in order to avoid bankruptcy. Over 60,000 people came to see Oath of the Horatii at the salon despite the hardship induced by the monarchy’s taxes.

    The subject of the painting was about a Roman country in a crisis; a situation relatable to the French. This connection creates a situation for the French people to put themselves in place of the Romans. In the context of this piece the French were willing to fight and sacrifice their lives for the good of their country. One point to consider when thinking about the revolutionary aspects of the painting is David’s use of color as symbolizing certain emotions. The color that is the most prominent in the work is the red cloak of the father which symbolizes passion, love, and violence. 7 It is not difficult to read this as a political painting calling for the French people to take a stand against their government.

    A comment the art historian Beth Harris makes on the inclusion of women in the painting by David is that they are the direct contrast to the men in the painting not only in pose and posture but in emotion and tone. 28 They are much more wrapped up in personal issues than the bigger picture of Rome. This could be synonymous with the nobility in France at the time, who were exempt from taxes and more concerned with political issues than with France as a whole. This implies further that the Horatii brothers taking the oath is in essence a call for the French people to rally together and fight for a better France, one in which they will be equally represented.

    Oath of the Horatii was a work that received much attention initially when David completed the painting. It can thus be confirmed that no matter what your view is on the Oath, it was certainly a controversial piece. David’s training in Rome after winning the Prix-de-Rome was definitely influential in his painting style and the effects of this can be seen in the completed painting. His opposition to the scene he was originally commissioned to paint can be interpreted in multiple ways, by difference in artistic taste or by his revolutionary zeal, although the latter seems like a more convincing argument.

    The preliminary sketches that David completed help to show the importance of this piece to David as he wanted to ensure the message was clear and the subject matter relatable. David’s goal seem to be that not only did he want to create a historical piece, to be viewed more favorably by the academy, but that he wanted to create a work that evoked change in a much conflicted France. David felt the hardship of the taxes by the monarchy just as many others did and wanted to have an active voice in the call for a change in France. Whether David’s call was strictly for revolution or more simply for reform is difficult for interpret. Nevertheless, it is clear that he wanted change.

    The popular reception of this painting made it David’s most famous work. It is clear that David was trying to not only make something revolutionary, but to also create something relative to classical antiquity. This not only pleased the people of the nation, but also the artists of the academy. This dynamic effect that was caused by Oath of the Horatii elevated David to be the most famous and well respected neoclassical artist of the day. It was clear that he had found an excellent way to incorporate classical subject matter into an event relative to the current French citizens. In the forthcoming years David would continue his involvement in the Revolution and in that of propaganda painting as this seem to be a skill that David had mastered.

    He would continue to paint for Napoleon Bonaparte and help to represent him as not only ambitious but as a ruler who is concerned with the French people. However, we know from history that Napoleon would ultimately fail at bringing about reform for the lower and middle classes. Jacques Louis David, nevertheless, was undoubtedly the best artists in the latter part of the 18th century and proved to many just the effect an artist could have not only on the art world in which he was living but also in the political realm in which he would attempt to change.


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