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Eighteenth-Century France

Jacques-Louis David is one of the most influential French painters in the neoclassical style. David is regarded to have been the preeminent painter of the era. In the early 1780s, David's cerebral brand of history painting became the initiating factor in the change in taste away from Rococo frivolity which was mainly directed towards a classical austerity and severity. David later became one of the strongest proponents of the French Revolution and can be described as having been a dictator of arts under the French Republic. According to Bordes; David was also a good friend of Maximilien Robespierre but was imprisoned after the fall of Maximilien from power (Bordes, 2005). Upon his release, he aligned himself in the political regime of Napoleon 1.This was the time that David developed his Empire Style which is commonly known for its use of warm Venetian colors. David is known for having had the largest number of pupils making him one of the most influential French artists of all times.

"Jacques-Louis David was born in the year 1748 on August the 30th into a prosperous family living in Paris, France" (Boime 1987). At the age of nine, David lost his father in war and was brought up by his prosperous architect uncles. His uncle saw to it that he accessed the best education at the Collège des Quatre-Nations. However, David was faced with the challenge of having had a facial tumor that greatly affected his school life. Initially, David's mother and uncles wanted him to be an architect but David wanted to be a painter. He overcame the opposition of being a painter and went ahead to learn from François Boucher who was at the time a leading painter. At the time, Boucher's' works were mainly concentrated in Rococo painting which was slowly giving way to more classical styles.


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David successfully won the Prix de Rome after a series of failures. While in Rome, he saw the ruins of Pompeii which filled him with wonder which later made him seek to create a revolution in the art world with the eternal concepts of classicism. After five years of study in Rome, David returned to Paris and was made a member of the Royal Academy. David received significant praise for his proficiency in painting despite the hostile reception he received from the administration of the Royal Academy. David married Marguerite Charlotte the daughter of the king's contractor M. Pécoul. David was commissioned by the government to paint Horace defended by his father but David answered by saying that only in Rome could he paint Romans.

While in Rome, David painted the famous Oath of the Horatii in the year 1784.This painting stresses the importance of masculine self importance for one's country and patriotism. The illustration by the painting is that of the three sons of Horaitus swearing on their swords to defend Rome to the death. The painting depicts four members of the Roman Horaitus family who had been chosen against the three members of the Curiatii family for a ritual duel. The purpose of this duel was to settle the disputes between the Romans and the Alba Longa. According to Crow, although this painting was painted five years prior to the French Revolution, the Oath of Horatii became one of the defining images of the revolution era (Crow, 1995). In the painting, three brothers express their solidarity and patriotism to Rome before the battle with a rival city. The resolute gaze and their outstretched limbs are a symbol of their republican patriotism.

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The painting occupies an extremely important place in the history of the French. The painting signified the period of the wars of Rome with Alba and France. These revolutionary ideas in painting are also experienced in the Distribution of Eagles. In this, we see a clear division between the male and the female attributes which confined the sexes to specific roles as it was during the French Revolution. The Distribution of Eagles would also serve as an emphasis with respect to self-sacrifice for one's emperor in this case Napoleon who was the French emperor at the time. The painting also symbolically defined the importance of battlefield glory.

In his next painting, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons , the painting had tremendous appeal during the time. This is because at the time, the French Revolution had begun and was accompanied by the establishment of the National Assembly and the fall of Bastille. The Royal Court prevented propaganda agitating the people by ensuring that all paintings were checked before hanging. One such painting of David, portrait of Lavoisier who was a chemist and a physicist as well as being a member of the Jacobin Party was banned by authorities for such reasons. When an announcement on the newspaper detailed how the government had banned the showing of The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, the people were outraged and the French government was forced to give in and the painting was hung in exhibition with constant protection form art student.

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The painting depicts Lucius Junius Brutus, a Roman leader who grieves over the death of his son after he orders the death to maintain the republic. The son had attempted to overthrow the government and restore the monarchy. This implies that Brutus was the heroic defender of the republic at the expense of his family. The painting was a republican symbol depicting some of the French leaders during the Revolution who selflessly put the nation ahead of their personal interests. This painting had immense meaning in France during this time.

The French Revolution

At the beginning, David supported the Revolution being a friend of Robespierre and as well as being a member of the Jacobin Club. There are suggestions that David's love for the classical made him embrace everything about the Revolution Period including the republican government. Other people argue that the artist's revolutionary career is as a result of personality. David later turned his focus on the Royal Academy of painting and sculpture mostly due to the previous criticism of his work by the academy. In an attempt to depict the political situation during the Revolution, in real time, David ventured into a new untraded path in the art world.

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The difficulty of creating artistic impressions portraying the current and controversial political occurrences was exhibited by the demise of David's The Tennis Court Oath. The demise of this painting was as a result of the political circumstances in France that proved too volatile to allow the completion of the painting. The political situation in the country was such that the unity that was symbolized in the Tennis Oath Court did not exist in the radicalized 1792.The National Assembly in France was split between the conservatives and the radical Jacobins which were both vying for political power. The reason why David did not complete the Tennis Court Oath is as a result of the unstable political climate in France and completing the work would have been politically unsound.


David incorporated many revolutionary symbols in his into his theoretical performances. Moreover, he orchestrated ceremonial rituals with respect to applied arts. One of the most popular works of all times of David was drawn from the classical Greek image of Hercules.  David through the figure of Hercules transformed the figure from a sign of old regime into a powerful new symbol of revolution. One masterpiece of David was The Death of Marat was created by him after the assassination of his friend Marat by Charlotte Corday. The latter accomplished this when she gained entrance to Marat's house in the pretence of providing him with names of people who should be executed as they were enemies of France. This piece of art became the leading image of the Revolution terror and immortalized both Marat and David during the Revolution.

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David was later sent to prison for allegedly being a close associate of Robespierre. According to Hunt, David painted his own image showing him being much younger than he really was in prison. David's wife visited him in jail where he told him about the Sabine Women. This was the main basis behind the painting of The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running between the Combatants, also called The Intervention of the Sabine Women which is believed to have been painted by David in honor of his wife. The painting was also interpreted as having been a plea for people to re-unite after the bloodshed that occurred during the revolution. David adopted a new style known as the Grecian Style as opposed to his earlier Roman Style. This new style in painting was greatly influenced by the work of art historian Johann Joachim Winkellman. David described the most prominent characteristics of Greek paintings as having noble simplicity and silent greatness in pose and expression.

The Oath of the Tennis Court

This famous painting by David depicted a pivotal event during the forts days of the French Revolution. The Oath was as a result of the pledged signing by 576 out of 577 members form the Third Estate who had been previously locked out of a meeting of the Estates General.

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Sketch by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath. David later became a deputy in the National Convention in 1792 (Janson & Rosenblum, 1989).

In the year 1789 on July 17th; a group led by Honore Gabriel Riqueti began calling itself the National Assembly. On June the 20th, the deputies woke to a rude shock to find their doors of their chambers locked and guarded by soldiers. Fearing that a loyal attack by King Louis XVI was imminent, the deputies converge to an indoor meeting at real tennis court where they took collective solemn vow. The deputies vowed not to separate and always reassemble until a new constitution for the kingdom was realized. However, the real cause of the closure of the deputies' chambers was that the royal household was still mourning the death of the Dauphin. This implied that political activities could not be conducted until the king resumed normal business from mourning.

The Oath of the Tennis Court is very contentious in the political history of the French. This is because; pro-monarchists then and now characterize the event as a duplicitous and hysterical overreaction which in a deliberate manner made capital out of a private tragedy. Other historians argue that depending on the political tensions in France at the time, the deputies' fears and concerns even if wrong were justifiable and that the importance of the oaths goes beyond the basic concept. The only deputy recorded as having not taken the oath is Joseph Martin-Dauch from Castelnaudary and is seen seated with his arms crossed and head bowed in David's sketch.

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The oath signified the first time that the French citizens opposed Louis XVI as well as the National Assembly's refusal to back down which forced the king to make concessions. The oath also served as a motivating factor for a series of revolutions throughout the country for months to come. In addition, it reinforced the Assembly's strength which forced the king to formally request that voting be done through head count and not the previously used order count. The oath further communicated in an ambiguous fashion the declaration by the deputies of the National Assembly of being the supreme state power. The oath is seen to have been an indicator of the Assembly's commitment towards eliminating anarchy.

The Distribution of Eagles

The distribution of eagles is an 1810 painting by Jacques-Louis David depicting the ceremony that was held soon after Napoleon assumed power as the French Emperor. In the painting, David sought to revive the military ethos of the Roman Empire. The ceremony and the painting that commemorated the inauguration of Napoleon as the French Emperor provided an important model for the use of the Roman Salute and the revival of the same eat public ceremonies organized by Fascists and Nazis.

The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (Lajer-Burcharth, 1984)

The event took place in the year 1804 on December 5th three days after the coronation of Napoleon. Napoleon after his official assumption of power distributed standards mainly based on the 'eagles' of the legions of Rome. The standards were primarily intended to institute a feeling of pride and loyalty among the French troops. During the distribution of these standards, Napoleon gave an emotional speech stating that the troops should defend the standards with their lives.  In the early sketches of the painting, David had included a winged figure to represent Nike, the goddess of victory floating over the troops. However, Napoleon rejected such an unrealistic feature in the painting.

The Death of Marat

The Death of Marat is a 1793 painting in the neoclassic style and one of the most famous paintings during the French Revolution by Jacques-Louis David. This famous painting refers to the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday on 13th July 1793.In her defense, Charlotte Corday claimed that she had killed one man to save thousands. She further claimed that Marat was responsible for the September Massacres and fearing another outbreak of civil war; was left with no choice but to kill Marat.

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The Death of Marat French: La Mort de Marat (Vaughan & Weston, 2000).

Jean-Paul Marat was a French physician, political theorist as well as a scientist best known as a radical journalist and politician during the French Revolution. The death of Marat is designed to commemorate a personable hero and David promised his friends that he would later depict their murdered friend in vocatively as "écrivant pour le bonheur du peuple" (writing for the good of the people). The painting as a whole has a methodical construction focusing on the victim. David sought in the course of painting the Death of Marat to transfer the sacred qualities long associated with the monarchy and the Catholic Church to the New French Republic. This is with respect to him painting Marat as a martyr of the Revolution in a style similar to the Christian martyr.

The Coronation of Napoleon (French: Le Sacre de Napoléon).                  

This painting was completed in the year 1807 by Jacques-Louis David who was at the time the official painter of Napoleon. The painting is characterized by imposing dimensions as it is almost ten meters wide and six meters tall. The event took place in Notre-Dame-de-Paris simply signifying that Napoleon was the son of revolution. The composition of the painting is entirely held under several axes which incorporate the rules of neo-classism in painting. One of the most significant axes is the one with the vertical orientation in the painting. This implies that all eyes are turned towards Napoleon who is at the center of the composition. There is a diagonal line that runs from the pope to the empress.

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The Coronation of Napoleon French: Le Sacre de Napoléon (Roberts, 1992).

One of the characters in the painting is Napoleon I who was standing and dressed in coronation robes similar to those that Roman emperors wear. The other characters in the painting are merely passive spectators. Joséphine de Beauharnais is the other character in the painting. She was kneeling in a submissive position as was required of her under the French Civil Code. The third character in the painting is Maria Letizia Ramolino, Napoleons mother who was placed in the stands by David. Napoleon's mother occupies a more significant role than even the pope.

The participants of the Notre Dame coronation who were also the characters in the painting came individually in David's studio to pose. However, only the image of the emperor is as a result of abstract imagination. For his background in the painting, David used the choir of Notre Dame as his fill in characters. Even the pope came to sit for the painting and actually blessed David for his work.

Some of the other popular works of Jacques-Louis David include; "Andromache mourns hector which was pained in 1783, Belisarius painted in 1781, A portrait of Antine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife of 1788, Paris and Helen of 1788, Portrait of Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comtesse de Sorcy of 1790 and cupid and psyche of 1814". A shift in David's perspective played a significant role in shaping his painting techniques in his later life. David commented on his developing the Grecian Style saying that in all human activity, the violent and the transitory develops first(Chodorow, 1994).



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