The art of revolution

He painted in the service of royalty, revolutionaries, and an emperor and although his political allegiances shifted, Jacques-Louis David remained faithful to the tenets of neoclassicism and changed the art world.

'The coronation of Napoleon,' 1807 521  (photo credit: Courtesy)
'The coronation of Napoleon,' 1807 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Not many artists have achieved vast fame and wide influence in history with just a paintbrush and talent, but Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was one such individual.
His works, revolutionary at a time of revolution, embodied new and fresh ideals that had great impact on society.
His works were referenced by political theorists and women began to imitate the new fashion in which David dressed the characters in his works. The furniture he created for his paintings became a new element of interior design that lasts until today.
The 18th and 19th centuries, marked by significant shifts in social and political structure in America and Europe, were inevitably accompanied by parallel changes in the arts. As the French Revolution marked the beginning of modern Europe, David’s work marked the beginning of modern art. David used powerful political allegory in his works to convey the French mood at the time. It was during the height of the French Revolution that David molded himself as the pictorial historian of that period.
Born into a wealthy family in 1748, David was first discouraged from becoming an artist but his family finally relented and he became a disciple of François Boucher, the leading painter of the time, who was a distant relative.
Boucher was a rococo painter, but the fashion for rococo, a frivolous style using asymmetrical designs and lots of curves, was giving way to a more serious, rigid style called neoclassicism – a revival of classic antiquity inspired directly from the classical period and portrayed through architecture, sculpture and painting. Boucher decided to send David to his friend Joseph-Marie Vien, a painter who embraced this classical reaction to Rococo.
There, David attended the Royal Academy, based in what is now the Louvre.
From 1770 to 1774, David attempted four times to win the Prix de Rome, an art scholarship to the French Academy in Rome, but lost. In protest, he attempted to starve himself to death. Finally, in 1774, David won the scholarship.
The prize meant free room and board in Rome for four years, on condition that the winner sent a significant work of art to Paris once a year.
David then spent five years at the French Academy in Rome (having requested an extra year, which he was granted). There, he became heavily influenced by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a man some refer to as the father of the discipline of art history. His book Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1750), was the first to identify Greece as the origins of classical art.
It was in Rome that David became fascinated with the works of Raphael and Jean- Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as David himself. Rousseau’s was the most popular of the philosophies among members of the Jacobin Club, the most famous and influential political club in the development of the French Revolution and of which David was a member.
ON HIS celebrated return to Paris, David was made a member of the Royal Academy and became the official painter to King Louis XVI, his principal purchaser.
David sent the Academy two paintings, and both were included in the Salon of 1781 – a considerable honor. Famous contemporary artists praised him, but the administration of the Academy was rather hostile to this young beginner. After the Salon, the king granted David lodging in the Louvre, a longstanding tradition and much desired privilege of great artists.
The Oath of the Horatii, painted in Rome in 1784, was David’s first success, and a phenomenally artistic expression of French thought at that time. In this piece, the artist references Enlightenment values while alluding to Rousseau’s social contract. The oath between the male characters can be read as an act of unification of men to the binding of the state.
As John Canaday in Mainstreams of Modern Art explains, “The three stalwart young Romans are vowing to their father that they will return victorious or give their lives in a duel with three warrior brothers of the city of Alba, a duel to be fought in the presence of the armies of both cities to determine which will rule the other. The special complication in this situation is that one of the grieving women to the right is not only the wife of one of the Roman warriors but the sister of one of the Albans as well. In addition, the youngest of the women is a sister of the Romans but the fiancée of one of the Albans.”
David imbues an air of drama into the work and deals with the issues of dedication and sacrifice.
Gender roles are clearly depicted, as the women greatly contrast with the group of brothers. David depicts the father with his back to the women, pointedly neglecting to include them in the ritual.
As Albert Boime writes in Social History of Modern Art: Art in the Age of Revolution, 1750- 1800, the women appear to be smaller in scale than the men. The masculinity and discipline displayed by the men’s rigid and confident stances severely contrasts the slouching, swooning female softness created in the other half of the composition. In Horatii, we see the clear division of male-female attributes which confined the sexes to specific roles, under Rousseau’s popular doctrines.
The scene and characters within are illuminated uniformly; there is no use of theatrical spotlighting here.
David uses the number three to accentuate certain aspects of the scene. Three arches dominate the background and the father, Horatius, is situated in the middle arch wearing a red robe to emphasize his role. He holds three swords for which his three sons reach out. Behind him, the three women sit in anguish.
The men’s resolve is contrasted by the women’s despair.
The focal point of the work is occupied by the swords that Horatius is about to distribute to his sons. While the rear two brothers take the oath with their left hands, the foremost one swears with his right. Perhaps David did this simply as a way of grouping the figures together, but people at the time noticed this detail, and some supposed that this meant that the brother in the front would be the one to survive the combat.
When David exhibited Horatii, he was hailed as having a “brilliant and courageous imagination” and the painting was praised as “the most distinguished production to come from a French brush in many a year.”
AFTER Horatii, David again used the theme of self-sacrifice with moral and philosophical meaning translated into political ideas in his work The Death of Socrates.
The painting was completed in 1787, prophetically, two years before the start of the Revolution. One of the messages it successfully portrays is the act of martyrdom.
Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 BCE when an Athenian jury convicted him on charges of corrupting the youth and interfering with the religion of the city. Accepting this outcome with remarkable grace, Socrates drank hemlock and died in the company of his friends and disciples.
David captures the moment before Socrates drinks the hemlock. In this work, David again demonstrates his talent as a master painter. His knowledge of muscular anatomy is clearly visible in Socrates’s torso and leg as well as the leg, back and arm of the disciple holding the goblet. The detailed drapery in the robes Socrates and his men are wearing is also indicative of David’s expertise. The use of chiaroscuro, the definition of forms through strong light and dark shadow, is prominent throughout.
The composition is uniform and has little depth in terms of space. Most of the action takes place in the cell Socrates has been forced to occupy during his trial and now his friends and disciples attempt to mask their deep emotion as he preaches to the end.
The wife of Socrates can be seen grieving alone in the hall and the rest of the family is seen leaving in the background. They were dismissed by Socrates so that their emotions would not ruin his final wish – to die in peaceful thought.
David makes excellent use of symbolic imagery in this work.
The flame in the oil lamp on the pedestal to Socrates’s right is dying, suggestive of Socrates’s own impending death.
Plato, recognizable by the scroll, inkpot and pen on the ground beside him, is depicted as an old man. In reality, he was not present at the death of his beloved master because of a supposed illness. Moreover, his appearance is not appropriate to his real age – he was 29 at that time. David likely wanted him to represent his personal ideal image of a wise and aged philosopher.
Crito sits before Socrates, affectionately grasping the leg of his old friend.
Socrates remains stoic. The disciple is turning away in shame, while he hands over the cup of hemlock to Socrates. Socrates supposedly speaks of the immortality of the soul, pointing with the index-finger of his left hand to where the souls of the morally good are supposed to reside. His body appears to be far too energetic and juvenile considering his age of 70. His young appearance reinforces the vitality and the strength of his ideas. In depicting him this way, David wants Socrates to represent the youthful strength, zeal and fearlessness of the republican movement on the eve of the French Revolution.
The chain on the bed and on the floor in front of Socrates reinforces the idea of his personal freedom and the freedom which his ideas represent. In addition, David wanted to incite his fellow citizens to destroy the chains of aristocracy and to strive for unchained liberty.
The painting is illuminated from the left and front though it is unclear from where the source of light originates since prison cells are ordinarily poorly lit. Socrates himself is the most well lit and is the only figure dressed in white, emphasizing the importance of his role and message. This lighting effect gives Socrates a godlike quality, suggesting that though it is he who is about to die, his beliefs and principles will remain.
By making him godlike, David delivers a message to the viewer that nobody is above making the ultimate sacrifice, or that it is even heroic to do so.
The background to the picture is rather plain, much like The Oath of the Horatii. This serves to focus the viewer’s attention on the characters and reminds the viewer that it is the action and qualities embodied in the figures that are the important element here and not the setting. David is supporting the principle that individuals should be able to speak out and act against a corrupt or oppressive government and that freedom is the ability to think and act for yourself. In this way he was clearly a supporter of revolutionary principles.
DAVID WAS heavily involved in the politics of the time, was a supporter of the Revolution and a friend of Robespierre. David even voted in the National Assembly for the execution of King Louis XVI.
With the backers of the revolution behind him, David turned his attention to the Royal Academy, for which he had much disdain after years of mistreatment at their hands.
The Academy was full of royalists, and David’s attempt to reform it did not go over well with the members. But the Royal Academy was a symbol of the old regime and the National Assembly ordered it to make changes to conform to the new constitution.
David linked up with Robespierre, one of the best-known and most influential figures of the French Revolution, and became directly involved in the Reign of Terror, a period that saw thousands of people beheaded.
In 1791, the king and Marie Antoinette were executed (David famously drew a quick sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine as she passed by).
In 1793, the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat – a Jacobin leader and editor-in-chief of the newspaper L’Ami du Peuple, or The Friend of the People, known for his violent rhetoric – by Charlotte Corday resulted in a further increase in Jacobin political influence.
Marat was a close friend of David and his subsequent painting, The Death of Marat, is considered to be his ultimate masterpiece.
When Robespierre was assassinated, thereby bringing an end to the Reign of Terror, David was thrown into prison for his involvement in the revolution. Upon his release in 1796, David found a new France waiting.
THE ACADEMY had long placed historical painting at the top of its hierarchy of subjects while scenes from contemporary life were relegated to the bottom order. However, after 1789, the revolution and its heroes became the focus of David and his contemporaries. Capitalizing on this trend, Napoleon Bonaparte, in his dramatic rise to power, commissioned art in service of his regime and marshaled artists to document contemporary history as it unfolded and depicting himself as a great leader.
Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass is one of the more recognizable paintings by David. As a matter of fact, it is the most famous painting of the Napoleonic legend.
The composition shows a strongly idealized view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps in May 1800.
David exalts what was in fact quite an unromantic reality.
Napoleon actually crossed the pass riding a donkey, wearing not a magnificent cloak but a simple gray overcoat. The complete personification of the Romantic hero, Napoleon, depicted as calm on a rearing fiery steed, triumphs on a rearing charger in a diagonal composition. A propaganda masterpiece, the work places Napoleon on a par with the ancient conquerors Hannibal and Charlemagne, whose names appear etched in the foreground rocks.
The relatively simple background and focused light play a role in emphasizing Napoleon. His right hand is raised and his finger points, like Socrates’s finger, as if to symbolize his pride and determination to succeed. The composition of the picture is based on simple geometrical form.
The principal subjects fit in a circle defined by the tail of the horse and the tip of Napoleon’s cloak. Napoleon and the horse form a “Z” shape, signifying movement.
While the first version of this work was commissioned by Charles IV of Spain, four variants commissioned by Napoleon exist, as well as a fifth David painted for fun.
They differ only in color.
When Napoleon assumed the title of emperor in 1804, David was appointed as premier peintre de l’empereur (first painter to the emperor), to chronicle Napoleon’s triumphs and reign in dignified and, of course, glorified terms.
One of the works David was commissioned for was The Coronation of Napoleon (otherwise known as Le Sacre) in Notre Dame in 1804. It is in fact the coronation of Josephine, not that of Napoleon, which is the subject of the painting.
David had originally intended to portray the event faithfully, with Napoleon crowning himself. The emperor placed the crown on his own head to avoid giving a pledge of obedience to the pope, but David evidently felt that to perpetuate this action in paint was somewhat disrespectful, so he instead painted the coronation of Josephine, with the pope blessing the empress.
What is unique about this painting is its sheer magnitude.
It is six meters tall by 10 meters wide and took three years of detailed work to complete. The enormous size of the work made it possible to indulge in the remarkable luxury of painting clear features for each character.
David was permitted to watch the event and had plans of Notre Dame delivered for study. Participants in the coronation came to his studio to pose individually, though never the emperor (the only time David obtained a sitting from Napoleon had been in 1797). For the background, David had the choir of Notre Dame act as his fill-in characters. The pope came to sit for the painting, and blessed David.
By depicting the pope as submissive to Napoleon, David reveals the French people’s defeat of the Church, portraying how they now had the ability to turn the pope’s will as they wished. But by including the pope at all, whether in agreement or disagreement, David indicates that the Church’s approval was still a prominent determinant of the king’s authority, revealing the lingering attachment of the French to the stability that the Church provided.
The work is a monumental group portrait in which everything unites to push the viewer’s attention toward the central scene.
The composition is organized around several axes, and incorporates the rules of neoclassicism. One axis passes through the cross and has a vertical orientation. All eyes are turned towards Napoleon, who is the center of the composition. A diagonal line runs from the pope to the empress.
David placed Maria Letizia Ramolino, Napoleon’s mother, prominently in the gallery. She occupies a place more important than the pope even though she did not actually attend the ceremony.
Due to the sheer number of people David had to paint, he appointed a number of assistants who helped draw in some of the crowd. They used a technique called grouping, drawing different sections of people, which, in the final composition, becomes a crowd.
Napoleon stared at the canvas for an hour and said “David, I salute you.” Regardless, David had to redo several parts of the painting because of Napoleon’s various whims.
Napoleon is also believed to have remarked, “This is not painting. You walk in this work.”
After the fall of Napoleon and the Bourbon restoration David was banished in 1816 as a regicide, and fled to Brussels, where he spent his last 10 years. During this period he returned to mythological subjects and intimate portraiture until his death in 1825. He is buried in Brussels.
Through his many great works, it is without doubt that Jacques-Louis David, as a person and an artist, was a true revolutionary.