Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was a French painter, considered to be one of the most celebrated and preeminent artists of his time. His art exemplifies the style which flourished in France and Europe during the late 18th century and early 19th century known as Neoclassicism, also known as Neoclassical reaction against the Rococo style. Although his works were influenced by many artists and events in the time period, David played a vital role in the evolution of European art. This research focus on David’s early works and his influence on the Neoclassical style in the late eighteenth century; and also how the painting “The Death of Socrates reflects David’s idea and vision of the art at the time period.
He was one of the most celebrated and preeminent artists of the Neoclassicism movement, also known as Neoclassical reaction against the Rococo style.
Details of David’s early life are pedestrian, Anita Brookner describes in her book “Jacques-Louis David:” The cast is composed of painters, architect, playwrights, and also, as in an eighteenth-century drama, of anxious mothers, influential uncles, and playful younger aunts.”
Jacques-Louis David was born on 30 August 1748 in Paris, France, in a fairly wealthy family. His father was a wholesale iron merchant while his mother family was related to architects. At the age of seven, David was sent to school at Picpus. However, although he was “very thoroughly educated,” David was never a good student. After the death of his father in a dual in 1757, David was sent to live with his uncles, Jacques Buron, then Pierre Desmaisons; both of them were successful architects at the time and wanted David to follow their footsteps to become an architect. However, he was fascinated in drawing, a fact that tensed the relationship between him and his mother, who also aspired him to be an architect.
In order to overcome the opposition, David went to learn from Boucher, a distant cousin, who was also the leading painter of the time. However, instead of taking over David’s tutelage, Boucher decided that he would send David to his friend, Vien, a painter who embraced the classical reaction to Rococo. In 1766, David became Vien’s apprentice, yet, Boucher still held huge impact on David’s painting style as Brookner stated in her work: “whether the hypnotic powers of Vien’s instruction were real or simply remembered in tranquility cannot be proved, but certainly David shows not the slightest hint of his influence before 1774.” There David enrolled in The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In 1775, when Vien became the director of the Academie de France a Rome, he convinced David went to Italy after he won the Prix de Rome in 1774, in which he failed to win four times. While in Italy, David observed the Italian masterpieces and the ruins of ancient Rome. David filled twelve sketchbooks with material that he would derive from for the rest of his life. He met the influential early neoclassical painter Raphael Mengs and through Mengs was introduced to the pathbreaking theories of art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. While in Rome, he studied great masters, and came to favor above all others Raphael. In 1779, David was able to see the ruins of Pompeii, and was filled with wonder. After this, he sought to revolutionize the art world with the “eternal” concepts of classicism. While in Italy, David especially studied the works of the 17th-century and the ruins of ancient Rome. Here, he absorbed the idea of Neoclassical style which at that time, had been widely arose in Europe and especially Rome by Mengs and Winckelmann. In fact, he once said: “The art of antiquity will not seduce me, for it lacks liveliness.” After 5 years, he left Rome to returned to Paris with his famous quote.
David first entered the Prix de Rome in 1771, at the age of 23, had to ask Vien for permission in order to submit his work “Minerva Fighting Mars” to the competition. Although initially placed first, David ended up with the second place. The painting is currently on view at the Louvre Museum in Paris. However, the “Minerva Fighting Mars” is one of some rare paintings from David’s early age that is still remaining. Most of his early works are either untraced or ruined such as his first portrait of the Sedaine and Buron families (painted in 1769), and The Niobids – David’s second entry for the Prix de Rome in 1772.
Jacques-Louis David returned to Paris in 1780. Here, he exhibited Belisarius Asking Alms, in which he combined his own approach to ancient times with Neoclassical style reminiscent of Nicolas Poussin. In 1782, David began to prosper at this point after married Marguerite Pecoul, daughter of a wealthy building contractor and the superintendent of construction at Louvre museum. In the same year, David was offered to go back to Rome to complete the painting “Oath of the Horatii,” the work which is considered to had leveled up his career as an artist, and to be David’s most notable accomplishment; which is now displayed at the Louvre. Exhibited in the official Paris Salon of 1785, the painting created a sensation and was regarded as a declaration of an artistic movement (revival, in fact) that would put an end to the delicate frivolity of the Rococo style – characterized by soft colors and curvy lines, and depicts scenes of love, nature, and light-hearted pleasure