Jacques-Louis David: Biography, Paintings & The Death of Socrates

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

In addition to being one of the few prominent Frenchmen to keep his head (literally!) through the entire French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David's work is among the most notable from the period.

Biography

The most celebrated artist of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David, was born in Paris in 1748 to a rich family and soon found his talent in art nurtured at the highest levels. Although his classmates would find him obnoxious, they recognized his talent, and it was little surprise that he soon received a three year scholarship to study art in Rome.

Self Portrait of David
Self Portrait

While in Rome, David would become enamored with Classical culture, especially the stories of the earliest Romans. These would stay with him for the rest of his life, not only inspiring some of his greatest works but also informing his political preferences for a French republic and ultimately an empire with a leader whose qualities so closely mirrored those of the early Roman emperors.

Paintings

Jacques-Louis David's work can best be categorized not through stages of his life but stages of French political development.

End of the Monarchy and the Revolution

During the last years of the monarchy, David developed his mastery of painting by focusing mainly on themes from classical history. Of these, the most famous is The Death of Socrates. Finished in 1787, the image recounts the story of the suicide of one of history's greatest philosophers. While historically inaccurate in some places, the image captures both the lamentations of Plato, the philosopher's greatest pupil, as well as the confidence of Socrates in the merit of his decision. According to history, Socrates claimed that after consuming the bowl of hemlock, he would either be faced with the greatest minds before him or he would sleep eternally and neither was a cause for fear.

The Death of Socrates
Socrates

While The Death of Socrates may be his most famous work of this period, others deserve special mention as well. Primary among these is The Oath of the Horatii, a painting from 1784 that commemorates one of the early battles of the Roman kingdom. Women can be seen seated and crying about the cruel fate of the three brothers. However, the focal point of the painting is the space between the outstretched arms of the brothers and their swords with the father of the brothers raising his hand as if to praise the gods for the service of his sons.

The Oath of the Horatii
Horatii

These themes of classical history played well to a populace that craved images against the royals. Needless to say, David was drawn to the idea of a government without a king and chose to memorialize some of the most enduring moments from that period. Principle among these was a drawing by David of the Tennis Court Oath, a statement made by the French commoners that they would have their voices heard in the government. The busy excitement of the scene leaps to the viewer. Important of note is that David left the top half of the sketch largely empty in order to better emphasis the ordered chaos below. In addition to this sketch, he also drew a quick image of Marie Antoinette on her way to execution. The smugness of her face shows her incredible disdain for the people.

Tennis Court Oath
Tennis Court Oath

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette

Napoleon

David found his greatest inspiration in French Emperor Napoleon I. The two found great admiration in each other, and soon David was the official court painter. In this role, he was able to create some of his most enduring works, two of which in particular serve as a window to the Napoleonic mindset.

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