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Jacques Louis David


French, Neoclassical  Painter

Influences: Baroque Style, High Renaissance, Nicolas Poussin and Raphael

Education - Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Paris, France

The Death of Marat  (click to enlarge)

Jacques-Louis David Biography

Jacques-Louis David was a great artist as well as the chief propaganda minister of the French Revolution. He is considered the father of the Neoclassical art movement because his compositions are balanced and synchronized, and the subjects were generally Roman inspired, emphasizing loyalty to the state. His very first paintings, the Oath of Horatii and Brutus, painted in Rome in 1784, were heralds of the French Revolution. David assertrd "In the arts the way in which an idea is rendered, and the manner in which it is expressed, is much more important than the idea itself." The fantasy-based aristocratic art of the Rococo seemed an insult upon the rights of men and was vilified by critics and the general public. David depicted the heroes of the revolution, giving them impressive, powerfully built physic like that of a gladiator rushing into the arena.

David revered the bloody-handed terrorist Marat and contemplated suicide when his idol was assassinated. During the notorious Reign of Terror, one of his favorite pastimes was watching political prisoners, men and woman, being executed. He would arrive at lunchtime with his political cronies and toast the air as "la guillotine" sliced off one head after another. He voted to approve the execution of King Louie as well as poor Antoinette. David believed in the revolution and used his mighty talent to promote the ideas of liberty and freedom. In 1781 the artist stated "Not by pleasing the eye do works of art accomplish their purpose. The demand now is for examples of heroism and civic virtues which will electrify the soul of the people and arose in them devotion to the fatherland."

David idolized Napoleon and liked to portray the tiny, balding, pudgy, unattractive emperor as a tall godlike man. He depicted Bonaparte as heroic Caesar even giving him a majestic golden wreath.

Jacques-Louis David Quotations

The artist must be a philosopher.-- Jacques-Louis David

I believed, in accepting the post of legislator — an honorable post, but one very difficult to fulfill — that an upright heart would suffice, but I was lacking in the second quality, by which mean insight. -- Jacques-Louis David Quote

I hated school. The masters always beating us with sticks and worse. I was always hiding behind the instructors chair, drawing for the duration of the class.-- Jacques-Louis David Quote

Description and Origins of the Neoclassic Art Movement

The word neoclassical means the New Classical.
During this  period artists looked back to the art and culture of classical Greece and Rome. The spread of Neoclassical Art was primarily inspired by recent roman archeological excavations, including Pompeii and by the brilliant German classical archaeologist and art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Winckelmann touted the homoeroticism of Greco-Roman art, "beauty is rather male than female. But the beauty of art demands a higher sensibility than the beauty of nature, because the beauty of art, like tears shed at a play, gives no pain, is without life, and must be awakened and repaired by culture. Now, as the spirit of culture is much more ardent in youth than in manhood, the instinct of which I am speaking must be exercised and directed to what is beautiful, before that age is reached, at which one would be afraid to confess that one had no taste for it.” His enthusiastic descriptions of art from Classical Antiquity encouraged an interest in Greek antiquities.

Neoclassical art is characterized by its classical form and structure, clarity, and to an degree, realism. More than just a classical revival, Neo-Classicism was directly connected to contemporary political events. Neo-Classical artists at first wanted to supplant the eroticism and frivolity of the Rococo style with a style that was orderly and serious in character. French Neoclassism painters emphasis's patriotism, as well as a sense of civility and honorableness. Distinguished art historian and author, John C. Van Dyke, observed "This was a revival of Greek form in art, founded on the belief expressed by Winckelmann, that beauty lay in form, and was best shown by the ancient Greeks. It was the objective view of art which saw beauty in the external and tolerated no individuality in the artist except that which was shown in technical skill. It was little more than an imitation of the Greek and Roman marbles as types, with insistence upon perfect form, correct drawing, and balanced composition. In theme and spirit it was pseudo-heroic, the incidents of Greek and Roman history forming the chief subjects, and in method it rather despised color, light-and-shade, and natural surroundings. It was elevated, lofty, ideal in aspiration, but coldly unsympathetic because lacking in contemporary interest; and, though correct enough in classic form, was lacking in the classic spirit. Like all reanimated art, it was derivative as regards its forms and lacking in spontaneity. The reason for the existence of Greek art died with its civilization, and those, like the French classicists, who sought to revive it, brought a copy of the past into the present, expecting the world to accept it."

The movement was particularly connected with the beliefs of the French Revolution and was seen as anti-aristocratic. The fantasy-based aristocratic art of the Rococo seemed an insult upon the rights of men and was vilified by critics and the general public. In an age of sweeping revolution and transformation Neoclassicism became the art of change.


Key Descriptive Words  and Phrases associated with Neoclassicism- Napoleonic Empire, Directoire, Roman ruins, neo-classicism, Johann Joachim WinckelmannRoman sculpture, The Academy,  mythic archetypes,  mid-18th century,  Apollonius of Rhodes,  hallucinogenic intoxication, eccentric personalities, madness, Imperial Rome components,  Symbolism, Neo-Attic , spiritually significant,  Ancient Greece, ethereal backgrounds, anti-Rococo, Neoclassicism, Hellenistic sculptures


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