Jacques-Louis David was born on August 30, 1748 into a prosperous family in Paris. His father was killed in a duel when he was 9, and his mother left him with his wealthy architect uncles. They saw to it that he received an excellent education, but he was never a good student; he had a tumor that obstructed his speech, and he was always too busy drawing. Soon he wanted to become a painter, but his uncles and mother desired him to be a soldier. He overcame their opposition, and became the pupil of François Boucher, who was a distant relative and a leading painter of the time. As Boucher was a Rococo painter (which was falling out of style at that time), he decided it would be better to send David to his friend Joseph-Marie Vien, a painter that embraced the classical reaction to Rococo. David attended the Royal Academy, based in what is now the Louvre.
David tried to win the Prix de Rome for four times. Once, he lost, according to legend, because a few other students had been competing for years, and the jury felt David’s education could wait for these other mediocre painters. In protest to this decision, David attempted to starve himself to death. In 1774, he finally won the Prix de Rome. Before leaving for Italy, he felt that the ancient style had become irrelevant, but while in Italy, David observed the Italian masterpieces, and the ruins of ancient Rome. He filled sketchbooks with studies that he would derive from for the rest of his life. While in Rome, he studied great masters, and came to favor above all others Raphael. After his experience in Rome, he sought to revolutionize the art world with the eternal concepts of classicism.
David was allowed to stay at the French Academy in Rome for an extra year, but after 5 years he returned to Paris. He found people who were eager to use their influence for him, and he was made a member of the Royal Academy. He sent two paintings to the royal academy, and both were included in the Salon of 1781, which is a high honor. After this succesful Salon, the King granted David residence in the Louvre, a much desired privilege of great artists. David married Marguerite Charlotte, daughter of the king's contractor. This marriage brought him money and four children. David lead a succesful career, had several pupils, and was commissioned by the government to paint "Horace defended by his Father". David headed for Rome where he would find his inspiration and where he painted his famous Oath of the Horatii. This painting occupies an important place in the body of hi work and in the history of French painting.
Priests, cardinals, princes and princesses came to see David’s incredible work. David wanted the painting to be presented in the Salon, but it arrived late, and was hung in an unfavorable position by those opposed to David at the Academy. In 1787, David did not become the Director of the French Academy in Rome as he was hoping for and expecting. Those in charge of the appointments said David was too young. This situation would be one of many that would cause him to lash out at the Academy in years to come.
For one of his next works, David painted 'The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons'. Right before the opening of that year's Salon, the French Revolution had begun. The National Assembly had been settled, and the Bastille had fallen. The royal court did not want propaganda agitating the public, so all paintings had to be checked before being exhibited. The people were outraged when the newspapers reported that the government had not allowed the showing of David's new painting. The royals gave in and the painting was hung in the exhibition, protected by art students. The painting became a Republican symbol, and obviously had immense meaning during these times in France.
While other artists were leaving the country for new and greater opportunities, David being a supporter of the revolution, stayed to help destroy the old order. He turned his sights on the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. This attack was caused primarily by hypocrisy of the organization and their personal opposition against his work. David’s attempt to reform The Royal Academy did not go well with the members. However, the National Assembly ordered it to make changes to conform to the new constitution. Next David began to work on something that would later hound him: propaganda for the new republic.
In 1791, the King attempted to flee the country. In reaction, he was arrested by the people. The monarchy was destroyed by the French people in 1792. When the new National Convention held its first meeting, David along with Jean-Paul Marat and Robespierre, was sitting. The National Convention held the trial of Louis XVI and David voted for the death of the King, which caused his wife, a royalist, to divorce him.
In this period, David’s friend Marat was assassinated by a woman of an opposing political party, whose name can be seen in the note Marat holds in David’s famous painting.
After killing the King, the Republic lashed out at nearly everyone in Europe. French troops marched across Belgium, and the emergency that had placed the Committee of Public Safety in control was no more. David was saved from being guillotined as his friend Robespierre by illness. He was arrested and placed in prison. There, being alone, no one could pose for him, so he could only paint his self portrait.
When he was finally released to the country, France had changed. His former wife managed to get David released from prison. David wrote letters to her, telling her he never ceased loving her. He remarried her in 1796. Finally, wholly restored to his position, he retreated to his studio and retired from politics.
Napoleon visited David's studio in 1797, during which occasion David recorded his face, which later became his famous Napoleon crossing the St Bernard Pass. After the proclamation of the empire, he became the official court painter of the regime.
Napoleon attempted to take over all Europe, and nearly did. Encouraged by his victories, he turned to Spain, but lost slowly due to guerilla warfare backed by England. Napoleon attempted to wipe out the Russians, but the winter froze the French army. Napoleon swiftly retreated to Paris to raise a new army, but the alliance armies managed to help Louis XVIII take the throne.
After the Bourbons returned to power, David was exiled at the age of 65, as he had voted to kill the King. He went to Brussels, where he lived out the last days of his life quietly with his wife.
When David was leaving the theater, he was hit by a carriage and later died on December 29, 1824. David’s body was not allowed into France and was therefore buried in Brussels, but his heart was seperately buried at Père Lachaise, Paris.