Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), French painter, who introduced the neoclassical style in France and was its leading exemplar from the time of the revolution to the fall of Napoleon.
David was born into a prosperous middle-class family in Paris on August 30, 1748, and studied at the Académie Royale under the rococo painter J. M. Vien. He won the Prix de Rome in 1774, and on the ensuing trip to Italy he was strongly influenced by classical art and by the classically inspired work of the 17th-century painter Nicolas Poussin. David quickly evolved his own individual neoclassical style, drawing subject matter from ancient sources and basing form and gesture on Roman sculpture. His famous Oath of the Horatii (1784-1785, Louvre, Paris) was consciously intended as a proclamation of the new neoclassical style in which dramatic lighting, ideal forms, and gestural clarity are emphasized. Presenting a lofty moralistic (and by implication patriotic) theme, the work became the principal model for noble and heroic historical painting of the next two decades.
After 1789, David adopted a realistic rather than neoclassical style in order to record contemporary scenes of the French Revolution (1789-1799), as in the dramatic Death of Marat (1793, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). From 1799 to 1815 he was Napoleon's official painter, chronicling the reign of Napoleon I in huge works such as Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1805-1807, Louvre). Following Napoleon's downfall, David was exiled to Brussels, where he stayed until his death. In these later years, he returned to mythological subjects drawn from the Greek and Roman past, painted in a more theatrical manner.
David, throughout his career, was also a prolific portraitist. Smaller in scale and more intimately human than his larger works, his portraits, such as the famous Madame Récamier (1800, Louvre), show great technical mastery and understanding of character. Many modern critics consider them his best work, especially because they are free from the moralizing messages and sometimes stilted technique of his neoclassical works.
David's career represents the transition from the rococo of the 18th century to the realism of the 19th. His cool studied neoclassicism strongly influenced his pupils Antoine Jean Gros and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and his patriotic and heroic themes paved the way for the romantics. He died in Brussels, December 29, 1825.
"David, Jacques-Louis." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.