Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
David was especially impressed by the boldness of the new French Emperor, and captured this energy in Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass. Showing Napoleon invading Italy to defeat the Austrian army, his name is superimposed on the rocks with two other generals who successfully invaded from the North, namely Hannibal and Charlemagne. He points onward while his horse raises as if to show that this was a moment of time captured in a second of the leader's march south.
Along with Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, Napoleon in his Study remains the most enduring image of the French emperor available to the modern viewer. Showing him hard at work into the wee hours of the morning (as evidenced by the clock, the wax on the candles, and Napoleon's appearance), the viewer is offered an image of the leader hard at work for the betterment of France. Among the documents on his desk is a draft of the Napoleonic Code, the set of laws that would become Napoleon's greatest legacy, a legal system that still finds use throughout the world 200 years later.
With the fall of Napoleon, many other supporters of the Revolution and the Empire found themselves under threat from the restored monarchy, but David was not one of them. His talents impressed the royals so much that they offered to take him back as the Court Painter once again. However, he refused, living out the rest of his days in Brussels before his death in 1825.
During a time when most wealthy Parisians were in mortal danger, Jacques-Louis David managed to not only survive but thrive in an environment that drew much of its inspiration from a classical period that he had studied extensively as a younger man. The career of Napoleon served as an important inspiration and following the downfall of the Emperor, played no small part in David's decision to leave France for good.
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