(1748 - 1825)
French painter, who introduced the neoclassical style in France and was its leading exemplar from the time of the
revolution to the fall of Napoleon.
David was born into a prosperous middle-class family in Paris on August 30, 1748, and studied at the Académie
Royale under the rococo painter J. M. Vien. He won the Prix de Rome in 1774, and on the
ensuing trip to Italy he was strongly influenced by classical art and by the classically inspired work of the
17th-century painter Nicolas Poussin. David quickly evolved his own individual neoclassical style, drawing subject
matter from ancient sources and basing form and gesture on Roman sculpture.
His famous Oath of the Horatii was consciously intended as a proclamation of the new neoclassical style in which
dramatic lighting, ideal forms, and gestural clarity are emphasized. Presenting a lofty moralistic theme, the work
became the principal model for noble and heroic historical painting of the next two decades.
After 1789, David adopted a realistic rather than neoclassical style in order to record contemporary scenes of the
French Revolution (1789-1799), as in the dramatic Death of Marat.
From 1799 to 1815 he was Napoleon's official painter, chronicling the reign of Napoleon I in huge works such as
Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine. Following Napoleon's downfall, David was exiled to Brussels, where he stayed
until his death. In these later years, he returned to mythological subjects drawn from the Greek and Roman past,
painted in a more theatrical manner.
David, throughout his career, was also a prolific portraitist. Smaller in scale and more intimately human than his larger
works, his portraits, such as the famous Madame Récamier, show great technical mastery and understanding of
character. Many modern critics consider them his best work, especially because they are free from the moralizing
messages and sometimes stilted technique of his neoclassical works.
David's career represents the transition from the rococo of the 18th century to the realism of the 19th. His cool studied
neoclassicism strongly influenced his pupils Antoine Jean Gros and J. A. D. Ingres, and his patriotic and heroic themes
paved the way for the romantics. He died in Brussels, December 29, 1825.