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Jacques-Louis David – French Neoclassical Painter


Jacques-Louis David – French Neoclassical Painter  was on the scene long before the impressionists. And with a totally different style. In fact, He was a master of the style that  Claude Monet and his impressionist colleagues were reacting against.

While it wouldn’t be fair, or accurate to say that David was a “pre-cursor” to Impressionist  Painting , just as they evolved French Art beyond the traditional boundaries of their day, so did David.

Before his arrival, the frivolous “‘Roccoco” style was in vogue. Jacques-Louis with his penchant for History “raised the bar” in a completely different, and more realistic direction.

The Metropolitan Musem Of Art has the rest of the story of  French Neoclassical Painter Jacques-Louis David:

The art of Jacques-Louis David embodies the style known as Neoclassicism, which flourished in France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. David championed a style of rigorous contours, sculpted forms, and polished surfaces; history paintings, such as his Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (Musée du Louvre, Paris) of 1789, were intended as moral exemplars. He painted in the service of royalty, radical revolutionaries, and an emperor; although his political allegiances shifted, he remained faithful to the tenets of Neoclassicism, which he transmitted to a generation of students, including Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, François Gérard, Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

David championed a style of rigorous contours, sculpted forms, and polished surfaces; history paintings were intended as moral exemplars.

The completion in 1814 of David’s monumental history painting, Leonidas at Thermopylae (Louvre), coincided with the fall of Napoleon; not surprisingly, the image of the courageous Spartan king, facing imminent defeat in battle, met with Napoleon’s disapproval in the aftermath of his disastrous Russian campaign. The painting, which David had first conceived in 1798 while working on his Intervention of the Sabine Women (Louvre), evolved over a period that witnessed challenges to the stylistic hegemony of Davidian Neoclassicism. In the revolutionary ferment of the 1790s, several of David’s students had already rebelled against their master, notably Girodet, whom David would later describe as a “lunatic” (in 1810, Girodet would triumph over his former teacher in the competition for the Prize of the Decade, awarded to his painting The Deluge [Louvre]). In his Sleep of Endymion of 1791 (Louvre), Girodet emphatically departs from David’s precedent in his sensual handling of the androgynous figure of Endymion and his choice of a mythological subject devoid of moral value. In the late 1790s, a group of David’s students, known as the Primitifs (Primitives) or Barbus (Bearded Ones), rejected the values of Davidian classicism in favor of an art whose linear purity and simplicity recalled archaic Greek vase painting as well as early Renaissance art.

These challenges to the primacy of David’s Neoclassical style set the stage for a radical redefinition of history painting around 1800 in France. Before the Revolution, David’s major history paintings, though often invoked in relation to contemporary events, drew upon subjects from ancient history (2009.423) and distant civilizations (Death of Socrates31.45); his approach was in keeping with that of the French Academy, which placed history painting at the top of its hierarchy of subjects while scenes from contemporary life were relegated to the bottom order. However, after 1789, the Revolution and its heroes came to the forefront in the art of David and his contemporaries. Capitalizing on this trend, Napoleon Bonaparte, in his dramatic rise to power, marshaled art in service of his regime and commissioned artists to document contemporary history as it unfolded. He appointed David “First Painter to the Emperor” in 1804 and enlisted many of his pupils to chronicle his triumphs. Gros, who had painted Napoleon as a young general in Italy in 1796, reveals his mastery of the Napoleonic propaganda machine in his Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa of 1804 (Louvre), an image from Napoleon’s Middle Eastern campaign. Gros’ portrayal of Napoleon, shown touching the sore of a plague-ridden French soldier, alludes both to images of Christ as healer and the divine touch of kings.

Around 1800, while David and many of his pupils were fueling Napoleon’s propaganda machine, a number of artists in his studio turned to France’s medieval past for inspiration. This group of artists from southern France, which included Pierre Révoil, Fleury Richard, and François-Marius Granet, painted small-scale works rendered with a precise, meticulous finish in what became known as the Troubadour style. Their retrospective subjects coincided with the establishment of Alexandre Lenoir’s Musée des Antiquités et Monuments Français, which opened to the public in 1796 and housed the sculpture from French churches that had been saved from destruction during the Revolution. The monastic interiors that became a specialty of the painter Granet evoke the Catholic past enshrined in Lenoir’s museum (2003.42.36). The historicism of the Troubadour style would inform the emerging Romantic aesthetic in the early nineteenth century.

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