France • 1748−1825
In January 1793, at the meeting of the Convention (the new legislative body of France), Jacques-Louis David, “the painter of the Revolution”, voted for the death penalty for King Louis XVI. 360 deputies voted against the execution and 361 – for it. Looking at these numbers, it is impossible to get rid of the thought that he cast the deciding vote in “burying the monarchy” in France. David’s wife, Charlotte, a convinced royalist, could not forgive her husband and, together with their four children, left him.

And in just nine years he would enthusiastically observe the little Corsican being “crowned and anointed” in the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Instead of creating paintings that once inspired the nation for revolution, now Jacques-Louis David would promote the Empire with his art and praise the emperor-impostor Napoleon, whom he fell in love with: “Oh! My friends, what a physiognomy he has! It is pure, it is great, it is beautiful like the ancient! In short, my friends, he is a man to whom altars would have been built in antiquity... Bonaparte is my hero!

Jacques-Louis David’s biography is a vast field for psychoanalytic interpretations.

He was born in 1748 in Paris. Maurice-Louis David, his father, was a successful merchant selling iron, who cared about his son’s education. In an expensive private pension, seven-year-old Jacques-Louis studied history and ancient languages, anatomy and the fundamentals of drawing. When the boy turned nine, his father was killed in a duel.

Biographers say that he hardly remembered his father because his conscience erased traumatic memories. Still, he was pleased to hear his relatives say "Jacques-Louis burrs just like his dad" (although this speech defect is not inherited). Much later, an ugly scar near the mouth, which he got in a duel (the deformation from it is clearly visible on the portrait of the artist made by Jerome-Martin Langlois) served him as a reminder of his father and things they had in common.

Most importantly, his whole life was an incessant search for someone who could replace his father.

The ones who took care of the orphaned Jacques-Louis were his mothers’ brothers. Both Jacques Buron and Jean-François Demaison were architects. The painter’s uncles thought that he would be able to continue the dynasty and sent him to the St. Luke Academy. When it became clear that the nephew was more inclined to painting than to architecture, uncle Buron decided to introduce him to their distant relative, François Boucher who used to be called “the main artist of France”.

At that time Boucher was already over 60, the art of Rococo was out of fashion, and he gradually lost his sight and no longer dared to recruit new students. Still, the legendary meeting of young David and elderly Boucher (old and new French art) took place. Allegedly, in response to Boucher’s invitation to work with the Neoclassical artist Vien, in the heat of the moment, the 17-year-old painter proclaimed: “The art of antiquity will not seduce me!” Boucher retorted: “Of course, the manner of Joseph-Marie Vien is a little cold. And you just come to me sometimes: I'll show you how to correct his coldness with my warmth.

Still, Vien, who was far from being the most gifted artist, became a good teacher for David, the latter always being lucky with patrons. In the same years, Michel-Jean Sedaine, a scientific secretary of the Royal Academy of Architecture, took care of him. Seeing his zeal and abilities, Sedaine treated a boy as his own son: during his teaching years, David even lived at Sedaine’s place and was constantly supported by him.

At that time, his main dream was to win the Rome Prize, awarded by the French Academy and giving the right to study in Italy. The painter competed for, and failed to win, the prize for three consecutive years. When the third attempt resulted in receiving a special award "for depicting nudity", and the grand prix was taken by someone else because of undercover intrigues, he decided to shoot himself. Jean Sedaine managed to break into his room in time and found the words to convince David that everything was still ahead for such a talented young man.

In 1774, Jacques-Louis David succeeded to win the prize with the fifth attempt and went to Rome. His mentor Joseph-Marie Vien was also promoted: he became the Director of the French Academy and also went to Rome with a special mission: the Italian authorities complained of the debauchery of their students, and Vien had to strengthen their discipline and morality.

It didn’t work with him, though. Jacques-Louis refused to marry the Italian maid who was pregnant from him. The girl sued. David would have ended up in jail, but the girl agreed to a generous compensation. It was Vien who lent him money.

Jacques-Louis David had no time for family: in his Italian period, he improved his skills with maniacal passion, leaving no time for anything else. His idol was RafaelCorreggio and Carracci were the masters, whose art he studied very intently. Through the art of the Renaissance, the painter moved to its mother – antiquity. With incredible difficulty he received permission from the authorities to copy images from the Hellenistic cameos and vases from the famous collection of Hamilton. He also went to the excavations in Naples, doing everything possible to comprehend the laws of the ancient harmony in all their grandeur and pristine simplicity.

Antiquity did not only "seduce" Jacques-Louis, but also gave abundant fruit. He returned to the French capital Paris as a completely different artist. His manner was emancipated and strengthened. All that was before – the timid baroque inheritance and uncertain Rococo rehashes – gave way to a new style, based on Roman classics of antiquity, adored by David. Very soon that style of clear lines and clear composition acquired the appropriate name – Neoclassicism.

In 1781, the master received the right to exhibit at the regular Louvre Salons. Jacques-Louis David showed some remarkable sketches and paintings: Belisarius Begging for Alms (an antique theme) and Portrait of Count Potocki (a modern theme). A critic Denis Diderot, a barometer of the tastes of the era, spoke of Jacques-Louis quite favorably. In the first painting he noticed the "exceptional taste of a young painter", the review of the second one was limited to one sentence: "An excellent painting, the colours here are not as dark as in the other ones; but isn’t the horse's right leg too tight?"

Of course, the French public also liked Jacques-Louis David’s art: dreaming about a fair republican system and the consolidation of the nation, it was not deceived by the ancient entourage. The public saw hints of the magnificent future of France behind the ancient Roman themes of his paintings. David quickly got customers, imitators and... a wife.

Marguerite Charlotte was a sister of Jacques-Louis’s companion in Roman studies and the daughter of the contractor of the King's buildings, Monsieur Pécoul, who betrothed his daughter to the painter after seeing the growing popularity of the latter. It turned out well. Four years later, his family already had four children: the boys Charles-Louis Jules and Eugene, and the twin girls Felicity-Ameli and Pauline-Jeanne.

Now Jacques-Louis David is mainly known for his paintings of 1790-1800-ies – The Death of Marat and portraits of Napoleon. But the apogee of his lifetime glory happened earlier, in 1785, when the Salon was literally blown up by the sensational The Oath of the Horatii. Three brothers from a Romans family, the Horatii, are going to fight three brothers from a family of Alba Longa, the Curiatii, one of which, ironically, was betrothed to their sister Camilla. That’s their civil duty. The Horatii must protect the honor of Rome from the Curiatii, and they are ready to sacrifice not only their kinship ties, but also their lives.

Consciously or not, but his Oath of the Horatii landed in the nerve of contemporary French society, electrified by discontent with government and a premonition of the swift drastic change. The monarchy was perceived as an annoying relic. A revolutionary mood was in the air. That is why The Oath of the Horatii, with all its pathos of brotherhood in arms and death for the Great Motherland, was perceived as a call to action.

David was getting closer to the revolutionary circles: he endlessly respected Jean-Paul Marat, the "friend of the nation", and Maximilian Robespierre became his close friend. Without too much delving into political subtleties, he felt public impulses as a struggle for justice and it inspired him. After the Revolution Jacques-Louis became a member of the Convention. He was the leader of the academic opposition (which is not surprising after a long struggle for the Rome Prize) and got the opportunity to reform the artistic life of France: to transform the Academy into a democratic Arts Council, and the royal Louvre – to the national museum. Under Jacques-Louis’s mediation, the Louvre greatly enriched its funds. The position of the Louvre’s director went to the aging Rococo master Fragonard, who was thrown off from the ship of the time by the revolution, and saved from going to the very bottom by the noble French artist.

In 1793, he supported the execution of the king, since he considered Louis VI a betrayer and a traitor to national interests. In the same year, in July, an aristocrat Charlotte Corday got into the house of Jean Paul Marat, the ideologist of the Revolution, and stabbed him to death in his bathroom. He was in Paris that day, and in 2 hours he was on the Cordillera Street, in order to draw in hot pursuit the head and the dangling arm of the dead. The Death of Marat became his most meaningful masterpiece, but it was far from the last death in his life.

Already in 1794 Robespierre was killed, and David was thrown into prison. The Jacobin dictatorship fell. The mass terror unleashed by it inevitably turned against the leaders of the Revolution. In prison, Jacques-Louis David painted an amazing self-portrait. He depicted a man with a glazed look and seemingly cramped muscles (in spite of the precepts of Diderot who systematically scolded the master for the overly tense muscles in his paintings) – himself waiting for the death penalty.

But he was acquitted. Charlotte Pécoul, who left him after the execution of the king, made every conceivable effort to prevent her ex-husband from repeating Louis’ fate. After that, they got married again and lived together for 29 years, until the artist's death in 1825. Charlotte lived only a year longer than her husband.

Realizing the failure of all his endeavours, the artist Jacques-Louis David lost his key values. He renounced his political views and refused the public recognition. What to do now? What to believe in? What to hope for? Jacques-Louis David painted a huge artwork entitled The Sabine Women with a clear conciliatory pathos. But, apparently, he continued to dream about something strong, majestic, and triumphal. In 1797, David witnessed Napoleon solemnly entering Paris. He was amazed at Napoleon’s Roman profile and the charm of power emanating from him. With the same frantic energy he used to have when devoting himself to the Revolution, David began to serve Napoleon, who gave him the position of First Painter of the Empire. "Yes, my dear friends! Bonaparte is my hero!" he shamelessly flaunted his closeness to power, like many of those who lost their father too early. But, just like them, he was a victim of inflated expectations and was doomed to be disappointed and lose again.

In 1815, Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, and in 1816 the Bourbon dynasty was restored in France. David fled to Belgium due to political repression. He devoted the last years of his life to the portraits of his friends from the Convention, exiles like him, and mythological paintings, now safely forgotten. David died of a stroke and was buried in Brussels. Only his heart returned to France: it was transported to Paris and buried at site No. 56 of the Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Author: Anna Vcherashnia
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