Renowned painter during the French Revolution and the court painter of the Napoleonic Empire, Jacques-Louis David is considered the leader of neoclassicism.
David was born in Paris on August 30, 1748 into a prosperous middle-class family. At nine years old, after his father’s death, his mother left him to be raised by his uncles. David was an artistic and creative child, often abandoning his studies to sketch or draw. When he was eighteen, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture under the guidance of painter J.M. Vien.
After four unsuccessful attempts, David won the Prix de Rome in 1774, a prestigious prize awarded by the government for artistic study in Italy. It was in Italy that he became influenced by the neoclassical ideas developing in Rome. David eventually adopted his own individual neoclassical style. He drew subjects from ancient sources and manipulated form and gesture from Roman sculpture. In 1785, his "Oath of the Horatii" became a model for new neoclassical style with its dramatic lighting and its precise forms and gestures.
When the French Revolution was underway, David abandoned his neoclassical style to adopt a more realistic artistic form which allowed him to capture the authenticity of scenes of the French Revolution in his paintings. One of his most famous realist paintings of the Revolution period is “The Death of Marat.” David was very active in the Revolution. He was elected a deputy to the National Convention in 1792 and aligned himself with such extremists as Marat, Danton, and Robespierre.
After the end of the Revolution, David was imprisoned for his affiliation with the war. Although in prison, David was still allowed to paint and he began to create the renowned masterpiece “Sabines.” When this painting was displayed in 1799, it attracted the attention of Napoleon who reinstated David as a government painter. However, after Napoleon’s fall, David was exiled to Brussels. He died there on December 29, 1825.