Jacques-Louis David was the official portraitist of Napoleon I. He was born in France in 1748 and died 1825 and was considered a neo-classicist. Until 1986 I’d heard of him but was unfamiliar with his work and then I went alone on holiday to Paris. During that week I spent a day in the Louvre which was when I first saw the artist’s work first hand.
Most people attending the Louvre want to see Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, and yes I have seen those amazingly famous pieces, but the painting that struck me as truly amazing was the Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine. It was painted in the early years of the 19th century and in his ‘Empire style’.
Now I’m not an art critic, historian or expert, those who consider themselves to be such would undoubtedly find me a philistine, but, to use a rather hackneyed phrase, I know what I like. The style of painting was very much in the style of a photograph – a snapshot of a real occurrence. It was an extremely detailed record of an actual event.
The reason that I single out this artist and more particularly this particular painting is its lasting impression. The first and most obvious is its size, now don’t get me wrong I’m not easily impressed by things that are huge, but this work is almost ten metres wide and just over six metres high. In the gallery, if memory serves accurately, it was somewhere on the second floor and took up a wall. The whole of the wall! While people were climbing over each other to see the Mona Lisa, clutching their hired translation recorders to an ear, which made them look like electronically controlled beings, I was sitting in a quiet hall gazing at Napoleon I’s Coronation.
The sheer effort in producing this piece must have been colossal. It took a couple of years to complete, 1805 -07, and David would have to maintain colour integrity, proportion and concentration. The details of people who were attending are beautifully crafted, from Pope Pius VII to Ottoman Ambassador Halet Efendi wearing his turban, the latter who was an onlooker rather than a principal in the action. There are few who work on such a scale these days apart from graffiti artists such as Banksy and they also have my admiration if for no other reason than scale.
The painting David produced was probably very much in the mould of ‘another day at the office’ but he did produce almost two hundred other works of the ‘photographic’ type but also renditions of myths and legends. He seems to have been equally comfortable painting people as animals. His rendition of Napoleon crossing the Alps has a marvellous painting of the ruler riding a big grey, yet he paints the Death of Marat and has great feel for human anatomy.
David was a character of strong views. He often stood up to authority and was a great supporter of the Revolution even though he’d been born into a wealthy family. As a young man he had a tumour on his face which impeded his speech and so spent much of his time sketching when he should have been studying. At various times in his life he attacked the establishment including the Royal Academy of Sculpture and Painting and eventually became friends with Robespierre one of the driving forces and cruellest men behind the execution of many Royalists. As a result of the association David ended up in prison and Robespierre went to the guillotine.
In spite of being a revolutionary he was granted amnesty by the Bourbon king Louis XVIII and even offered the job of court painter. However, he turned down the offer and went to Brussels as a form of self-imposed exile where he painted his final masterpiece ‘Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces’ finishing it in the year before his death.
Jacques-Louis David was leaving a theatre in December 1825 and eventually died on the 29th of that month. Disallowed return to France for burial, for having been a regicide of King Louis XVI, the body of the painter Jacques-Louis David was buried at Evere Cemetery, Brussels, while his heart was buried at Pere Lachaise, Paris.
David was a really significant painter and led what could be euphemistically referred to as a busy life. He had between forty and fifty students and influenced painting in France and Belgium yet this same man could focus down to produce work of amazing detail and accuracy.
Look him up!