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Art & Design

Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) gained prominence as a history painter in the Royal Academy prior to the events of the Revolution with works such as the Oath of the Horatii (1784) and The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons. Borrowing from historical tales, these works promoted the ideal of commitment to the Republic above all.

David became one of the key artists of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. He was elected to the National Convention in 1792 and served as a member of the Committee of General Security and the Committee of General Instruction, a key supporter of the radical Jacobin faction that sought to suppress all moderate supporters of the Revolution. His vote in favour of the death of the King caused his royalist wife to divorce him (they were later remarried). He was also to sign the arrest warrant for Alexandre de Beauharnais, a minor noble whose widow would become Josephine, the future wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.

As well as producing paintings that supported Republican ideals, David was responsible for the design of Revolutionary dress – again taking inspiration from the Roman Republic – and for the costumes of State. He designed pageants and festivals that depicted the principles of the Revolution, in which (unlike those of previous times) the people were able to participate, building their collective interests and identifying themselves with the new Republic.

With the fall of Robespierre, David was imprisoned and narrowly escaped the guillotine. On his release, he gained the attention of Napoleon who made him First Painter to the Emperor when the Empire was proclaimed in 1804, and commissioned him to document the coronation ceremony. The first image was the Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and Coronation of the Empress Josephine (December 2, 1804).

Along with Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767–1855), who designed Josephine’s coronation gown and mantle, David designed elements of the coronation ceremony to lend the occasion a sense of gravitas and authority.

David was supplanted in the Emperor’s favour by his students who included Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835), Jean-Baptiste Isabey (court artist, garden and fete designer and friend to Josephine) and François Gérard (1770–1837).

On the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, David – despite being granted amnesty – chose self exile in Brussels where he continued to paint portraits and history paintings. He died on 29 December 1825 from injuries sustained from a carriage accident.

Jacques-Louis DAVID
French 1748-1825
Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (Bonaparte, Premier Consul, franchissant les Alpes, au mont Saint-Bernard, le 20 mai 1800) 1803
oil on canvas
267.5 x 223.0 cm
Versailles, musée national du château (MV 8550)
© RMN (Château de Versailles) - Franck Raux
  • Jacques-Louis DAVID
    French 1748-1825
    Napoleon, crowned (Napoléon, tête couronnée) (1807)
    oil on wood
    43.5 x 36.1 cm
    Fondation Dosne-Thiers (Institut de France), Paris
    Bequest of Frédéric Masson, 1923
    © RMN - Franck Raux
  • James QUINN; Jacques-Louis DAVID (after)
    Madame Récamier (c. 1895)
    oil on canvas
    175.2 x 243.8 cm
    National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
    Presented by the artist under the terms of the National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship, 1895

Think, Investigate, Create

Art and Studio Arts

David was known as a Neoclassical painter. Find examples of other works in a Neoclassical style. Compare the examples you have found and describe some of the characteristics shared by these works.  In what ways do they draw from the Classical art of ancient Greece or Rome?

David recorded significant contemporary events in his paintings. Discuss how significant events are recorded and disseminated today. How are these records maintained for future generations? Napoleon reiterated that history is written by those in power. What other stories could be told from the time of Napoleon?

Jacques-Louis David inspired artists both in his life time and after. David immortalised the socialite and trend-setter Madame Juliette Récamier in his painting Portrait of Madame Récamier 1800. His student François Gérard also completed a portrait of her in 1802. A copy of David’s portrait by James Quinn, Madame Récamier (c. 1895) can be found in the NGV Collection.

Find images of these portraits online and compare the way they portray the sitter. What information can you get about the sitter by looking closely at each portrait? What information can you get about the artists by looking at how they have chosen to portray the sitter? What can you say about each artist’s style? What information can you get about the time in which the works were painted?

Surrealist artist René Magritte used David’s portrait of Madame Récamier as inspiration for his work Perspective: Madame Récamier by David 1951. This painting depicts a similar scene to that shown by David, but in place of Madame Récamier a coffin reclines on the day bed.

What reasons might Magritte have had for choosing David’s work as a basis for his own? What message or idea does Magritte convey?

Create your own contemporary art work based on Madame Récamier or another of David’s works.

Educator's Guide