When young Jacques–Louis David sought assistance from François Boucher (1703 – 1770) in 1760s for the improvement of his painting techniques the latter knew the days of rococo is nearing its end and it would receive its fated blow from none other than David himself. Boucher duly sent David to his compatriot Joseph–Marie Vien (1716 – 1809), a classicist painter, for further training. Vien would later influence David’s entry to the French Academy in Rome and also accompany his protégé for a trip to Italy.
Jacques–Louis David (August 30, 1748 – December 29, 1825) overcame family’s misgivings about the choice of his vocation, who wanted him to be an architect, to became a painter. After five unsuccessful attempts, for reasons other than his painting skills, David managed to win Prix de Rome in 1774. In one of the preceding years he even went on for a hunger strike in protest of the judges’ decision of awarding the Prix de Rome to another candidate. Time spent in Italy studying works of great masters and also visiting the ruins of Pompeii affected him profoundly.
The changing political scene and friendships with people like Maximilien Robespierre and later Napoleon Bonaparte had a decided influence on David’s art. His artworks, powerful, masculine and full of ardour, resonated well with the sensibilities of the time. While in trying to depict revolution on canvas real time he opened hitherto unexplored pathway for art it also made him susceptible to those who wanted to use his work as propaganda for a new regime. The poignant imagery of The Death of Marat, one of his artistic triumphs, speaks of many untold stories.
The final decade of David’s life was spent in exile, first in Brussels and later in the Netherlands. He continued painting zealously and producing such work as Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces when he was a septuagenarian. He breathed his last shortly afterwards a freak accident in Brussels on his way back home from theatre.
In the arts the way in which an idea is rendered, and the manner in which it is expressed, is much more important than the idea itself. To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this – and only this – is to be an artist.