In This Article Jacques-Louis David

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • David’s Writings
  • Early Biographies
  • Document Compilations
  • Catalogs
  • Essay Collections
  • David’s Teaching
  • David’s Role in French Art, His Influence and Legacy
  • Studies on Specific Works
  • Contemporaneous Criticism
  • Modern Interpretations

Art History Jacques-Louis David
by
Dorothy Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0003

Introduction

Jacques-Louis David (b. 1748–d. 1825) was the most famous and influential artist of his time in France and one of the most eminent throughout Europe. His career spanned several tumultuous political regimes, including the ancien régime, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, and the Bourbon Restoration (when he was exiled to Brussels). David’s most famous works include The Oath of the Horatii (1784–1785), The Death of Socrates (1787), The Loves of Paris and Helen (1788–1789), The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789), The Death of Marat (1793), The Sabine Women (1799), Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1805–1807), Amor and Psyche (1817), and The Anger of Achilles (1819). His brilliant and psychologically penetrating portraits include Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Lavoisier (1788), Madame Recamier (1800), Napoleon in His Study (1812), and Sièyes (1817). David’s drawings are also a fascinating and very significant facet of his art. David had a large number of students, some of whom became famous artists in the 19th century, including Gérard, Girodet, Gros, and Ingres. The David historiography is vast. Writings about the artist and his work began in the late 18th century and continue up until the early 21st century. His critical fortunes constitute a fascinating history in itself. Certain periods evinced an enthusiastic engagement with the artist and a renewal of interest in his art. One such period characterized by a very considerable number of publications began circa 1980 and continues through the early 21st century. Monographs, surveys, exhibition catalogs, and a large number of articles were published during this period that signaled great vitality and launched new directions in David studies. Several major lacunas remain to be filled in the David historiography. One is the absence of a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s painted oeuvre. Another significant gap concerns his correspondence, which has never been compiled (Philippe Bordes and Mark Ledbury have been working on this project). Also needed is a compilation of the artist’s discourses written during the Revolutionary years up through the Directory, including his writings concerning the Revolutionary funerals and festivals, his commissioned paintings during this period, and other initiatives. The major retrospective David exhibition held in the Louvre in 1989 and its accompanying catalog contributed significantly to inspiring subsequent generations of David scholars. The large conference that accompanied the opening of the exhibition led to the publication of the proceedings in two volumes in 1993. In 2005, another significant exhibition of David’s work, this time focusing on his 19th-century production, was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum; this exhibition traveled to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, where another major David conference was organized. The conference proceedings were published in 2007. Since the 1990s, major new directions in the David historiography include the use of methodologies developed in literary studies as well as related humanities and social science disciplines. Thus, we see the methods of semiotics, structuralism, deconstruction, and psychoanalytical theory applied to analyses of David’s oeuvre. These directions, along with more traditional, historical approaches, reveal the extent to which David’s art serves as a signpost not only for the history of French art and culture circa 1800 but for its importance in the modern world.

General Overviews

Listed in this category are more general books geared to an undergraduate audience or the broader educated public. The concise survey Lee 1999 serves as an informed introduction and makes accessible to a general audience highlights of the artist’s career. Bordes 1988 serves a similar function for French readers. Michel and Sahut 1988 focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

  • Bordes, Philippe. David. Paris: Hazan, 1988.

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    A concise history of the artist’s career, useful as a basic reference.

  • Lee, Simon. David. London: Phaidon, 1999.

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    A general yet fairly comprehensive survey of David’s life and works intended for a broader audience but based on the latest scholarship.

  • Michel, Régis, and Marie-Catherine Sahut. David: L’art et le politique. Paris: Gallimard, 1988.

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    A short but useful book destined for the broader public that focuses on David’s political engagement and how this impacted his artistic experience.

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