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Jacques Louis David - Pennelli e rivoluzione

Jacques Louis David - Brushes and revolution

Jacques Louis David. Brushes and revolution



David's human story was not only that of a painter, but also that of a politician and a man of power who is not lacking in very questionable aspects.

In the history of art, David is identified as "the father of neoclassicism", to distinguish him from the immediately preceding style which was the "Rococo".

As a politician, he began as a faithful supplier to the King, he was a revolutionary of terror and then also a Bonapartist, situations that influenced his painting and led him to exile at the end of his career.


He was born in Paris on August 30, 1748 to a prosperous family.

His father, Louis Maurice, was an iron merchant who also supplied the state; his mother, Marie Geneviève Buròn, belonged to a family of architects.

One day the father had the brilliant idea of dying in a sword fight; his mother then retired to the countryside and entrusted little Jacques-Louis, who was nine, to his uncles who are architects.

For the uncles, the most natural thing in the world was to initiate Jacques-Louis to a career as an architect, but in the field of studies there is the drawing course and thus the spark is born between the pictorial art and the little David. .

Without even opposing him too much, since Louis wants to be a painter, what do they do? They call the King's first painter to teach him, but Francois Boucher is old and a little tired; then he hijacks the student on another successful painter of the moment: Joseph Marie Vien.


Often in life chance can help and, connecting the dots backwards, as Steve Job said, you realize that an impediment is actually an advantage. For David this "fallback" will prove to be a stroke of luck.

Vien, in fact, represents the painting of the moment. His painting “The seller of cupids”, which exhibited at the Salon obtains great success, is in the “Greek style”, that is, a pictorial style with fewer frills and flourishes than the Baroque and Rococo.

David is his pupil and will absorb the foundations of this new style which, towards 1850, will be labeled "Neoclassical".

In addition to having him studied by him, he also had him study at the Académie, which provides all the tools to become professionals, or court painters; in addition, the Académie judges and certifies the quality of the painters.

It is in this period that David comes to mind to follow the same idea as his father, fortunately not to the end, and challenges a colleague from the shop to a duel. He remedies a scar on his cheek which, however, he eliminates when he paints his self-portraits.

His teacher introduces him to the environments that matter and, thus, David sets himself the goal of winning the "Prix de Rome".

Winning the award means obtaining a scholarship and money to finance a study trip to Italy for 3 to 5 years. In Italy there is painting that counts, painting at the highest levels and, as we Italians should know, the memories of antiquity.

In 1771, at the age of 23, he finished second. The following year he presents the painting "Diana and Apollo the children of Niobe darting", but still loses. Again in 1773 the attempt made with the painting “The death of Seneca” is a failure.

For Jacques Louis David this is unbearable and he complains of a "plot" against him, an injustice for which he thinks of suicide.

In reality, the judges consider David's paintings to be weak from the compositional point of view and made in a style that is too theatrical.


What can one ask from a theatrical painter? To decorate a theater. In reality it is not a real theater, but the home of the opera prima ballerina, who transformed her palace into a kind of theater.


While Davidi is pining and architects tremendous revenge, he paints “Antioco e Stratonice” and, finally, in 1774 he wins the Grand Prix and finally leaves for Rome.

Full of enthusiasm, he studies and draws all the time. He realizes that the idea he had of Italian painting is very different from reality: he finds himself in front of works by Correggio, Guido Reni, Raphael and Caravaggio with an exceptional technique.

The Academy does not praise him, but neither does it crush him. The judgment is like: “the boy is intelligent, but he can work harder”.


After 4 years of this life, in which he studies the masterpieces of Italian artists, David gets depressed and for a few months goes into crisis. The recommended treatment is classic: “relax… rest… take a trip”.


David leaves for Naples and in the end it is not very clear whether he has recovered from the stimuli and orders that his Maestro Vien gave him or from a relationship with the master's maid; the fact is that David recovers and returns to Paris.

The Academy welcomes his pupil and his style, which always remains theatrical, but technically and compositionally it is more solid and clean.

The painting "Belisario Asks for Alms" achieved some success and appreciation.

David finds another of his lucky spots in 1782. He, 34, knows Charlot Pecoul aged 17 and they get married, also because the rich father accompanies his daughter with a princely dowry and so David can open his Atelier with adjoining accommodation, even in the Louvre.

They will have four children. In that position David welcomed his first students and in 1783 entered as a full member of the Academy.


One might think that, finally, everything is okay and just continue like this in love and agreement and for David life is all rosy: the rich father-in-law who subsidizes him, the atelier in the Louvre, students and a wife very young. What more could you want from life?

And instead…

The King, through his administration (Batiments du Roi), commissions a painting from David: a great historical painting inspired by the duel between Horatii and Curiazi.

Indicate precisely what you want, including measurements that should not exceed 3 meters by 3 meters.

Jacques Louis David, to begin with, designs it at 3.30 x 4.25 meters and does everything his way. He even breaks the ban on showing the work, exhibiting it in his studio before the official presentation.

The Academy was not slow to shock the painter with judgments such as "rebellious painter" or "the picture is an attack on good taste" and so on.

But this time the "public", (we call this the people who made up the artistic environment of the time, rich, insiders and enthusiasts), rewards him.

For the public "The Oath of the Horatii" is the most beautiful painting of the century.

This painting consecrates David as the progenitor of the “true style”: precise, sober and essential.


Success helps to undermine relations with the Academy, which even cancels the Grand Prix of 1786, because the candidates are all students of David, and rejects the painter's request who would like to enter the Academy's management


However, we are in 1789 and these are times of revolution, the very famous French Revolution.

David seizes the opportunity quickly and puts himself at the head of the "dissident academics": the group calls for an end to the Academy's privileges and, in particular, the ban on non-academic artists from exhibiting their works at the Salon.

David becomes the "painter of the revolution".

Obviously David asks the Assembly to suppress all the academies and to appoint him as commissioner at the "Salon de la liberté". Just to complete the revenge, he obtained the repeal of the post of director of the Accadémie de France.

Power, in some men, creates addiction and David begins to neglect painting for political commitment. He is among the signatories of the decline of the monarchy and of King Louis XVI.

In 1792 he organized his first "Revolutionary Party", was elected deputy of Paris at the National Convention and became friends with Jean-Paul Marat, who in turn judged David an "excellent patriot".


He is appointed to the Public Education Committee, responsible for propaganda, for the administration of the arts; joins the monuments commission and proposes the reorganization of the Louvre.


In 1793 he voted for the death of Louis XVI and his wife Charlot, a monarchist, asked for a divorce.

But now David is launched. In 1793 Marat was assassinated. It is up to David to celebrate him with a painting, one of his most famous, and to take care of the funeral where, of course, he exhibits his painting.

David is appointed secretary of the Convention and member of the General Security Committee and even President of the interrogation section.

In practice he is one of the men of the period of the "Terror"; signs over 300 arrest warrants, which often result in executions.

He has no qualms about anyone, not even acquaintances and friends, except to delete from the list and help those who like him, even if loyal to the King. Together with Robespierre he deals with propaganda and celebrations of the revolution.


In 1794 Robespierre denounced an ongoing conspiracy at the Convention, but he did so without naming names. The deputies, therefore, all feel threatened and in danger of the guillotine, so they prefer to eliminate Robespierre, who blatantly declares ".. if I have to succumb, I will drink my hemlock calmly". And David supports it: "and I'll drink it with you!".

The next day Robespierre is arrested, but David is absent.

A few days later the Convention asks him for explanations about his relationship with Robespierre, and David, in practice, replies: "Robespierre who?".

He denies any of his sympathy and revolutionary activities and is only imprisoned. His abjuration is enough for the ex-wife to intervene and help the ex-husband, so much so that they will then remarry a second time.


Slowly, thanks also to the intercession of his pupils and the influential acquaintances of his wife, David returns to painting, advocating national reconciliation and celebrating the virtues of harmony.

But on the horizon is "a man to whom altars would have been raised in ancient times, yes ... he is my hero". Who is David talking about? By Napoleon Bonaparte.

With turns worthy of a modern politician, David goes from purveyor of the King to a revolutionary, from a repentant and repentant realist to a new Bonapartist.

Without delay the painter writes to Napoleon and offers him his services, offering him to paint a portrait. Royalists attack J.L. David for his new turnaround, but Napoleon offers him protection and invites him to follow him in the Egyptian Campaign.

David is enthusiastic, however, he prefers to send one of his students to Egypt.

In 1800 it happened that the king of Spain Charles IV commissioned a portrait of Napoleon to be placed in his palace from those who sent his colleague Louis XVI to death.

This is the origin of the painting "The First Consul overcomes the Alps at the Gran San Bernardo", which will be followed by three other copies requested by Napoleon himself.

And so, little by little, David returns to deal with the propaganda of power, designs the new French uniforms, which are rejected, however, proposes a reform of all artistic institutions (with himself as administrator), but this too is rejected. However, in the end he was nominated "first official painter" complete with a Legion of Honor as an honor.

It will be David who will take care of the great celebratory painting of Napoleon's self-coronation in Notre Dame.

David's painting becomes Napoleon's painting, also because the emperor often intervenes and tells David what to do, this yes and that no, remove this, put that, which will sometimes make the compositional structure of the painting itself incomprehensible.


But the state administration, made up of many people who have not forgotten David's past, creates problems and highlights, for example, the exorbitant cost of the painter's paintings and often refuse payment.


We are in 1815 and Napoleon's star sets.

David hangs over not only with the "stain" of having been a revolutionary of terror, but also of having been a Bonapartist. He leaves his ateliers to his students, who will instead be welcome at court, and flees to Switzerland.

He would like to move to Rome which refuses him and so he moves to Brussels.

David continues to paint and his paintings always get a great success "Mars disarmed by Venus" attracts 6000 (paying) visitors, which for those times is a huge success.

There is no shortage of invitations to return to France, but David wisely refuses.

The situation and age did not take long to bear fruit: in 1824 he was hit by a carriage and the following year he was struck by a disease worthy of Freud: his hands were paralyzed.


A painter without hands is a joke that David does not survive and dies a month later. It is December 29, 1825. France refuses to accept his remains.

"Neoclassicism" also dies with him and soon the real revolution will arrive in the world of art with the invention of photography and the Impressionists.

Andrea Giuseppe Fadini                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                



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