Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), French painter, was born in Paris on the 30th of April 1748. His father was killed in a duel, when the boy was nine years old. His education was begun at the College des Quatre Nations, where he obtained a smattering of the classics; but, his artistic talent being already obvious, he was soon placed by his guardian in the studio of Francois Boucher. Boucher speedily realized that his own erotic style did not suit the lad's genius, and recommended him to J. M. Vien, the pioneer of the classical reaction in painting. Under him David studied for some years, and, after several attempts to win the prix de Rome, at last succeeded in 1775, with his Loves of Antiochus and Stratonice. Vien, who had just been appointed director of the French Academy at Rome, carried the youth with him to that city. The classical reaction was now in full tide; Winckelmann was writing, Raphael Mengs. painting; and the treasures of the Vatican galleries helped to confirm David in a taste already moulded by so many kindred influences. This severely classical spirit inspired his first important painting, Date obolum Belisario, exhibited at Paris in 1780. The picture exactly suited the temper of the times, and was an immense success. It was followed by others, painted on the same principles, but with greater perfection of art: The Grief of Andromache (1783), The Oath of the Horatii (Salon, 1785), The Death of Socrates, Love of Paris and Helen (1788), Brutus (1789). In the French drama an unimaginative imitation of ancient models had long prevailed; even in art Poussin and Le Sueur were successful by expressing a bias in the same direction; and in the first years of the revolutionary movement the fashion of imitating the ancients even in dress and manners went to the most extravagant length.
At this very time David returned to Paris; he was now painter to the king, Louis XVI., who had been the purchaser of his principal works, and his popularity was soon immense. At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, David was carried away by the flood of enthusiasm that made all the intellect of France believe in a new era of equality and emancipation from all the ills of life. The success of his sketch for the picture of the Oath of the Tennis Court, and his pronounced republicanism, secured David's election to the Convention in September 1792, by the Section du Museum, and he quickly distinguished himself by the defence of two French artists in Rome who had fallen into the merciless hands of the Inquisition. As, in this matter, the behaviour of the authorities of the French Academy in Rome had been dictated by the tradition of subservience to authority, he used his influence to get it suppressed. In the January following his election into the Convention his vote was given for the king's death. Thus the man who was so greatly indebted to the Roman academy and to Louis XVI. assisted in the destruction of both, no doubt in obedience to a principle, like the act of Brutus in condemning his sons - a subject he painted with all his powers. Cato and stoicism were the order of the day. Hitherto the actor had walked the stage in modern dress. Brutus had been applauded in red-heeled shoes and culottes jarretees; but Talma, advised by David, appeared in toga and sandals before an enthusiastic audience. At this period of his life Mademoiselle de Noailles persuaded him to paint a sacred subject, with Christ as the hero. When the picture was done, the Saviour was found to be another Cato. I told you so, he replied to the expostulations of the lady, there is no inspiration in Christianity now! David's revolutionary ideas, which led to his election to the presidency of the Convention and to the committee of general security, inspired his pictures Last Moments of Lepelletier de Saint-Fargeau and Marat Assassinated. He also arranged the programme of the principal republican festivals.
When Napoleon rose to power David became his enthusiastic admirer. His picture of Napoleon on horseback pointing the way to Italy is now in Berlin. During this period he also painted the Rape of the Sabines and Leonidas at Thermopylae. Appointed painter to the emperor, David produced the two notable pictures The Coronation (of Josephine) and the Distribution of the Eagles. On the return of the Bourbons the painter was exiled with the other remaining regicides, and retired to Brussels, where he again returned to classical subjects: Amor quitting Psyche, Mars disarmed by Venus,. He rejected the offer, made through Baron Humboldt, of the office of minister of fine arts at Berlin, and remained at Brussels till his death on the 29th of December 1825. His end was true to his whole career and to his nationality. While dying, a print of the Leonidas, one of his favourite subjects, was submitted to him. After vaguely looking at it a long time, Il n'y a que moi qui pouvais concevoir la tete de Leonidas, he whispered, and died. His friends and his party thought to carry the body back to his beloved Paris for burial, but the government of the day arrested the procession at the frontier, an act which caused some scandal, and furnished the occasion of a terrible song of Beranger's. It is difficult for a generation which has witnessed another complete revolution in the standards of artistic taste to realize the secret of David's immense popularity in his own day. His style is severely academic, his colour lacking in richness and warmth, his execution hard and uninteresting in its very perfection. Subjects and treatment alike are inspired by the passing fashion of an age which had deceived itself into believing that it was living and moving in the spirit of classical antiquity.
The inevitable reaction of the romantic movement made the masterpieces, which had filled the men of the Revolution with enthusiasm, seem cold and lifeless to those who had been taught to expect in art that atmosphere of mystery which in nature is everywhere present. Yet David was a great artist, and exercised in his day and generation a great influence. His pictures are magnificent in their composition and their draughtsmanship; and his keen observation and insight into character are evident, especially in his portraits, notably of Madame Recamier, of the Conventional Gerard and of Boissy d'Anglas. Extracted from Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition (1911)