Jacques-Louis David was a pioneer of the neoclassical art movement, and France’s most acclaimed painter at the peak of his career. He rose to fame in the 1780s with his Salon paintings of classical subjects, including the famed The Oath of the Horatii.
However, he is also remembered for his role in the French Revolution, particularly in its most extreme and violent phase. He was an ally and friend of the radical Jacobin leader Robespierre, and after being elected to the National Convention in 1792, he voted for the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. However, he was twice imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall in 1794, and seemingly came to regret the role he had played in the bloodshed.
After the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, David became his First Painter in 1801. After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, David exiled himself to Belgium, where he painted his final artworks.
Here’s our pick of ten of Jacques-Louis David’s most famous works. (Because many of his paintings are strongly related to their historical context, we’ve put our selection in chronological order).
Andromache Mourning Hector (1783)
French Title: La Douleur et les Regrets d’Andromaque sur le corps d’Hector son mari
Andromache Mourning Hector brought David election to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1784 – ironically, David would later play an instrumental role in abolishing the Academy during the French Revolution. The painting was based on an episode in Homer’s The Iliad, an ancient Greek epic poem set during the Trojan War.
In The Iliad, Andromache is married to Hector – a major character in the poem who dies defending Troy from the Greeks. Here, she is shown morning over his body and consoling their son, Astyanax. In this early piece by David, he explores themes he would later return to in his neoclassical artwork, including self-sacrifice and putting one’s cause before one’s family.
The Oath of the Horatii (1784)
French Title: Le Serment des Horaces
This painting was David’s first royal commission and depicts an episode from Roman legend. That is, in the 7th century BC, the cities of Rome and Alba were at war. To settle the conflict, they agreed to a fight to the death between three champions from each city. Rome and Alba both selected a trio of brothers: Rome chose the Horatii brothers, whilst Alba chose the Curiatii brothers.
However, the Horatii and Curiatii brothers were linked through marriage, which explains the distraught women and children to the right. The woman dressed in white is Camilla, a sister of the Horatii, and the fiancée of a Curiatii brother; the woman next to her in brown and blue is Sabina, a Curiatii sister and wife of the eldest Horatii brother. Behind them is the grandmother of the Horatii, consoling her grandchildren.
Interestingly, the pledging of the oath depicted by David was invented by him; it appears neither in written Roman legend, nor Horace – the 17th century play by Pierre Corneille about the Horatii/Curiatii battle.
The Oath of the Horatii is one of Jacques-Louis David’s most famous neoclassical paintings, and upon its exhibition in 1875 at the Paris Salon, established him as France’s leading artist.
The Death of Socrates (1787)
French Title: La Mort de Socrate
This masterpiece of neoclassicism depicts the final moments of Socrates, after he was sentenced to death in 399 BCE by the Athenian courts. Socrates was required to carry out his own execution by drinking hemlock, which is being handed to him in the painting. Before committing “suicide” though, Socrates is shown giving one final lecture to his distraught friends and students, as was recorded in fellow Greek philosopher Plato’s account of events in Phaedo, which David studied in preparation for his painting, as well as meeting with various scholars.
However, David didn’t illustrate events exactly as they were documented by Plato. Notably, he excluded some people Plato stated were present at Socrates’ death, and added in Plato himself (shown at the foot of the bed), who didn’t actually witness the death. David also makes Socrates appear more muscular than he probably would have been at the age of around 70, whilst Plato is depicted as much older than he would have looked at the time of Socrates’s death. (Plato was around 30 in 399 BC).
With its ideas of self-sacrifice for one’s ideas and defiance of oppressive authority, The Death of Socrates was later embraced by many French Revolutionaries.
The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789)
French Title: Les licteurs rapportent à Brutus les corps de ses fils
Jacques-Louis David based this painting on an episode in Roman history. In 509 BC, the tyrannical king of Rome, Tarquin, was overthrown and the Roman Republic was established. A leading figure in this overhaul was Brutus, who became one the co-consuls of the Republic. However, Brutus later found out that his two sons were conspiring to restore Tarquin as king, leading Brutus to condemn them both to death. Brutus is shown on the left in the shadows; behind him, the corpses of his executed sons are being stretchered in. On the right is his grieving wife and daughters, as well as a weeping servant.
The painting was due to be displayed at the 1789 Salon exhibition that year, which was shortly after the Storming of the Bastille – an event that marked the beginning of the French Revolution. However, the Salon was still controlled by the royalist authorities, who initially decided not to exhibit the painting owing to its perceived revolutionary sympathies. (The Salon did eventually show it though after public pressure.)
It’s unclear whether or not David decided to undertake this particular painting because of his own political inclinations, but with its themes of civic virtue and personal sacrifice, it found resonance during the French Revolution.
The Death of Marat (1793)
French Title: La Mort de Marat
The Death of Marat is probably the most famous painting of the French Revolution, and depicts the dying seconds of Jean-Paul Marat after he was stabbed by Charlotte Corday in 1793. Much like Jacques-Louis David himself, Marat was also radical figure of the revolution, and two were in fact friends.
After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Marat began editing a newspaper called L’Ami du Peuple, which voiced hard-line opinions against the monarchy, the aristocracy, and even conservative revolutionaries. He later became one of the most influential members of the National Convention, where he belonged the Montagnards, an extreme group that eventually initiated the Reign of Terror.
However, Corday belonged the Girondins, a conservative republican faction that was opposed to the extreme violence supported by the likes of Marat and David, believing that it betrayed the noble cause and spirit of the Revolution. Corday gained access to his bathroom (where Marat spent a lot of time in the bath due to a skin condition) by pretending to be a Jacobin supporter with information on a Girondin uprising. She then fatally stabbed Marat, for which she was executed shortly after.
David began working on The Death of Marat within days of the killing. Shortly after its completion, the painting was revered as the “Pietà of the Revolution”, a reference to Michelangelo’s sculpture Pietà, which depicts Jesus lying dead in the arms of Mary, and has a similar composition to David’s masterpiece.
This self-portrait was painted during David’s imprisonment at the Hôtel des Fermes in 1794 after the fall of Robespierre. Robespierre, alongside David, had been a prominent member of the National Convention during it’s most radical phase – the Reign of Terror – when thousands of supposed “counter-revolutionaries” were executed.
However, during his incarceration, David began to shift his attitudes away from the radical, and wrote letters in which he renounced the violent excesses of the Reign of Terror. This self-portrait then, is often discussed in the context of David beginning to come to terms with his role in the Terror, and his de-politicisation.
For example, he depicts himself with paintbrushes and a palette, as if he is rebranding himself as an artist, not a political figure. Similarly, some critics suggest that the red highlights on his coat (notably on the right lapel and the fold next to his palette) could have been painted as symbols of blood and his guilty conscience.
When Jacques-Louis David completed this painting he was 46, but shows himself looking considerably younger. Similarly, he reduced the appearance of a facial disfigurement he had on his left cheek that caused him a speech impediment
The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799)
French Title: L’Intervention des Sabines
With The Intervention of the Sabine Women, David illustrates a well-known episode from Roman history. In the 8th century BC, the Romans had abducted the Sabine women (women native to the neighbouring territory of Sabina), and several years later, the Sabine soldiers attempted to rescue them and bring them back to their former homes. This rescue mission culminated in a bloody battle, during which the Sabine women intervened to put an end to it, and the long-running conflict between the Romans and the Sabines.
The Sabine woman central to the piece is Hersilia, who is dressed in white and standing with her arms outstretched between her father Tatius (to her left), who was the king of the Sabines, and her husband Romulus (to her right), who was the king of Rome. David shows the battle beginning to end: the cavalry soldier on the right of the canvas is putting his sword back into his sheath, and in the background, soldiers are shown raising their helmets and arms in the air to symbolise peace.
With this painting, David attempted to promote reconciliation in France after years of violence during the French Revolution. In fact, he conceived the idea for the painting when he was in prison.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801)
French Title: Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand Saint-Bernard
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power to become the First Consul of France, overthrowing the previous ruling committee known as the French Directory. At this time, France was at war with Austria, but was led to victory under Napoleon. In the Spring of 1800, Napoleon’s troops crossed the Alps, travelling through the Great St. Bernard Pass, to launch a surprise attack on the Austrians. This culminated in the Battle of Marengo on June 14th, when the French decisively defeated the Austrians and regained territory in northern Italy.
It is this victory that Jacques-Louis David commemorates with this painting, although Napoleon didn’t technically lead the troops, but actually followed them across the Alps a few days later on a mule. Napoleon refused to sit for the portrait, famously stating that “Nobody knows if the portraits of the great men resemble them, it is enough that their genius lives there.”
There exists five versions of this portrait. The first was commissioned by the Spanish king Charles IV to be displayed in the Royal Palace in Madrid; this was completed between October 1800 and January 1801. Napoleon then asked David for another three copies, which were completed between 1801 and 1803. The artist also completed a fifth copy that remained in his studio until his death.
In the lower left corner on the rocks, David carved the name Bonaparte beside Hannibal and Karolus Magnus (better known as Charlemagne) – two other military leaders who also lead their troops across the Alps. By doing this, David suggests that Napoleon’s place in history will be just as great as theirs.
The Coronation of Napoleon (1807)
French Title: Le Sacre de Napoléon
This painting depicts the coronation ceremony of Napoleon as Emperor, which took place in December 1804 at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, after he was proclaimed Emperor earlier that year. Originally, David had planned to show Napoleon crowning himself, as indicated by the his initial drawings for the painting. However, at the last minute David decided to instead show Napoleon crowning his wife Josephine as Empress. The composition of the piece was inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’s painting, The Coronation in Saint-Denis, depicting the coronation of King Henry IV and Queen Marie de’ Medici.
As with many David paintings, some details of the painting are not completely true to life. In particular, Napoleon instructed David to include his mother, Letizia Bonaparte, in the scene even though she did not actually attend the coronation. Similarly, David had initially shown Pope Pius sitting statically, but when Napoleon stated he “had not brought the Pope such a long way to do nothing”, David showed the Pope with one arm raised slightly, as if he is gesturing his blessing.
As well as this painting and Napoleon Crossing the Alps, another particularly famous David painting of Napoleon is The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries.
Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824)
French Title: Mars désarmé par Vénus
Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces was completed during David’s self-imposed exile in Belgium, after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. He began work on this painting in 1821, and had it exhibited in Paris in the spring of 1824. When it was shown in the French capital, both the critics and public were amazed that despite being his 70s, Jacques-Louis David was still able to paint with the same skill and ambition he had shown throughout his career.
After David began the painting, he wrote “This is the last picture I want to paint, but I want to surpass myself in it. I will put the date of my seventy-five years on it and afterwards I will never again pick up my brush.”
This painting is often interpreted as David advocating peace over war – it depicts Venus, goddess of love, and the Three Graces taking away the weapons, helmet and shield of Mars, the god of war. At his feet, Cupid is untying his sandals. Although the subjects of the painting are taken from Roman mythology, its style is quite different to that of his neoclassical paintings, and more aligned with Romanticism. Shortly after completing this painting, David was killed in an accident in December 1825.