Tuesday, April 12, 2011

40 Days of Artists: David

We're jumping ahead about 100 years from the Baroque period to one of the leading figures in Neoclassical painting.  Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris in 1748, and studied under Joseph-Marie Vien in Rome, and in the process was awarded the Prix de Rome.  During his stay in Rome, David became influenced by the classical style, and had met some of the initial figures of the new classical movement.  In 1780, David returned to Paris with his passion and influence of the new classical art as a response to the very odd and frivolous Rococo movement (This is why I have skipped about 100 years from the Baroque, as I consider the Rococo to be like the "disco era" of art history).
One particular painting brought David back to Rome in 1784 - The Oath of the Horatii.  David worked in a very methodical, academic manner on the painting.  Working from live models and doing several preliminary drawings for the figures, it was certainly a classically executed work.  Upon its completion, it became David's rise to fame, and even the pope desired to view it.  The painting's austere and patriotic depiction made it a powerful expression of the new classical style of painting in the 18th century.
David followed up on the Horatti with two more classical themes - Brutus and His Dead Sons and Death of Socrates.  They were both highly acclaimed by critics and hailed as perfectly classical in every sense. 
As an active supporter of the French Revolution, David was inspired to paint a series of three "martyrs" of the Revolution, and one of them became perhaps his greatest masterpiece.  It was The Death of Marat, painted in 1793.  Marat was assassinated by a knife to his chest by Charlotte Corday.  Of the three paintings, this particular one stands out as David's most sympathetic and reverent towards a figure of the Revolution, as Marat had been a close friend of David's.  Marat was known to have a skin disease, but David's depiction of him makes no reference to it.  On the contrary, Marat's body is quite idealized, and even shown to have some color left in his flesh as it is depicted in the moment of his last breath.  The painting is quite often compared to Michelangelo's Pieta, especially in the modeling of the lifeless arm hanging over, and the tilt of his head resting on his shoulder.
David also became a major supporter of Napoleon.  Another of his greatest works, and one of the largest paintings in the world on canvas is Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine, which currently covers an entire wall in a large room at the Louvre in Paris.  It is considered one of the last of David's most revered works.

Jacques-Louis David
The Death of Marat
oil on canvas
162 x 128 cm.

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