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The Life and Works of Jacques-Louis David

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Early Life and Art InstructionMorgan Taylor 4/27/08 The Life and Works of Jacques-Louis David “In the arts the way in which an idea is rendered, and the manner in which it is expressed, is much more important than the idea itself.”- Jacques Louis David Jacques Louis David was a man of many roles. He was a revolutionary, a prisoner, a courtier, and most of all a painter. David was considered a master of the neoclassical style and the corporal aesthetic throughout his lifetime. During the height of the French Revolution he was known for his powerful, allegorical paintings, which were considered visual manifestos for the time. He endured imprisonment, desertion, and rejection only to end up as the famous first painter of Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite his monumental, artistic achievements, David’s life ended in exile at age seventy-seven. However, he did not die in anonymity and his legacy is still upheld today in the studies of art students the world round. Early Life and Art Instruction Born to parents of the bourgeois class in Paris 1748, David grew up in the cushy lifestyle he would later learn to revile. His father was killed in a duel when David was nine years old and legacy of this loss can be seen in many of his paintings (Jordan, pg. 1). In his late teens, David became convinced that he wanted to be an artist. He began visiting famous master-of-the-rococo-style and distant relative, Francois Boucher for instruction in art. The rococo style of art incorporated delicate colors and lines along with images from myths, most commonly those of baby angels and beautiful young women. Although Boucher never accepted David as a formal pupil, he still had an influence on his early work. However, this influence quickly disappeared as David and other young artists began rejecting the teaching of the French masters and the Royal Academy of Art. The Royal Academy of Art focused on the theories of Le Brun who, “insisted that the facial expression was the principlemeans of representing the passions,” (Johnson, pg 14). However the new theory of physiognomy, which was adopted by David, focused on the expression of the whole body, not just the face. This new “aesthetic revolution” showed meaning and emotion through posture, poses, lighting and gesture of the hands, feet, and other extremities (Johnson, pg. 14). David applied this idea to his paintings for the remainder of his career and incorporated it in his teachings. A student of David’s, Paillot de Montabert wrote, “Gesture, considered as one means of expression, must be recognized at the same time as being the most powerful of all. This is easy to prove. Neither physiognomy, which resides in the facial features, neither color nor chiaroscuro, neither attributes nor the site, etc. is able to produce this great power and moving force which is result of pantomime alone,” (Johnson, pg. 69). During his time as a student in Paris, David worked under the artist Joseph Vein (Roberts, pg. 12). Vein encouraged David to submit his work to the Prix de Rome, a competition sponsored by the Royal Academy (Roberts pg. 12). The winner of the competition was awarded a year-long scholarship to the art school in Rome. David entered the competition three times before he won in 1774 with his painting The Illness of Antiochus (Jordan, pg. 1). David spent five years in Rome studying the work of Raphael, the Carracci, Caravaggio, and Poussin in order to refine the techniques of Neoclassicism (Jordan, pg. 1). The Neoclassic style was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries and used images and philosophies from ancient Roman and Greek mythology and legend. This style appealed greatly to the Age of the Enlightenment because it related to Roman morals of government and civil life (Chilvers, pg. 1). In Rome, David not only studied painting, but also focused on sculpture and drawing. These studies did not come easy to David and he experienced many personal and artistic crises throughout. His difficulties did not go unnoticed and his mentor,Vein is documented as saying (in reference to David), “We are dealing with a man who is open, honest, but at the same time excitable enough to need careful handling,” (Roberts, pg. 12). Perhaps the biggest of these crises occurred while David struggled to complete his academie, a collection of paintings he was required to do in order to graduate from the academy. This body of work includes Count Potocki, Saint Roch Interceding the Plague-Stricken, Saint Jerome, and Belisarius Receiving Alms. This work was received well at the Salon in Paris in 1781, and this positive response fueled David’s desire to enter the ranks of the French Masters. However, this would not come easy as David soon lost the support of the Academy and its teachers. The Revolution By the completion of The Oath of Horatii in 1784, David had gained independence and confidence as one of France’s most poplar and critically acclaimed painters. The next few years in David’s life were spent making new friends with Enlightenment thinkers and Republicans. Some of these new acquaintances included Robespierre, Lavoisier, and Marat. During this time, David completed many allegorical paintings like the Horatii. These include Death of Socrates (1787) and Brutus and the Lictors (1789). In Death of Socrates, David uses the legend of Socrates’ death to convey a call to reason amongst the French citizens (Johnson, pg. 67-68). According to legend, Socrates was given the choice to live out the remainder of his life in exile or face execution. Socrates chose to take his own life by drinking hemlock. The painting was done in the neoclassic style depicting images (Socrates) from Greek and Roman legend. Most importantly, this painting is a perfect example of how David used neoclassical ideas (that of self-sacrifice for the betterment of the state) and images to say something about modern day issues.In Brutus and the Lictors, Brutus is shown grieving with his family as his the dead bodies of his two sons are brought to him. Brutus had his sons put to death for conspiring to bring down the Roman democracy and place themselves in power as the new Roman monarchs. This painting was seen as a Republican manifesto and conveyed ideas of reason and sacrifice (Roberts, pg. 35). Brutus is an excellent example of how David used the corporal aesthetic to convey emotion and expression. Brutus’ wife is shown in panic with her arm stretched out, palm


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