neoclassicism: jacques louis david

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Oath of the Horatii and Death of Marat


Page 1: NeoClassicism: Jacques Louis David

Clip from ‘The Da Vinci Code’ : which Neoclassic painting can you see in the background?

Page 2: NeoClassicism: Jacques Louis David

Jacques Louis David (1748-1825)

Movement: Neoclassicism

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Jacques-Louis David: painter to the King, then the Revolution, and then the EmperorDavid was trained in the classicism favoured by the Academy, but was a protagonist of a far more severe style: Neo-Classicism. He ultimately became the painter of the Revolution and even served on the committee that voted for the beheading of the King (he would later spend time in jail for this). David was friends with Robespierre and Marat, leaders of the Reign of Terror, the revolution's most violent aspect. After the revolution, when Napoleon became Emperor of France, David served as his official painter.

‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…’David was raised in the wealthy and powerful family of his uncle, a minister to the King of France. The young David was at first trained in the studio of the great Rococo master François Boucher, a distant relative who also counted Fragonard amongst his students. After several failed attempts, David would win the coveted Prix de Rome, a prize given annually to one advanced Fine Art student.

A New StyleThe competition was open to the alumni of the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), the preeminent art school in France. The prize financed the study of art in Rome for a period of five years. Traditionally, winners took note of the works of Antiquity (ancient Greek and Roman art) and of the High Renaissance (the legacy of Raphael & Michelangelo for example) but devoted all their attention primarily to selected masters of the Baroque. In contrast, David reversed this hierarchy focusing on the art of antiquity and the Renaissance.

Inspiration from Ancient Greece and RomeWhat emerged in David's painting was a sharp rejection of the Rococo style. Gone is the fluid brushwork, soft, pastel color, and the amorphous organic compositions of Boucher and Fragonard. Of equal importance was the shift in subject. A typical work of the ‘ancien regime’, The Swing, celebrates the pleasures of love and of the experience of the ruling class. It is a painting intended to indulge the viewer's senses with rich, almost aromatic sights and textures. In contrast, most Neo-Classical paintings take their subjects from Ancient Greek and Roman history.

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The Oath of the Horatii, 1784 Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Commissioned by Louis XVI.

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The MythIn this painting the three Horatii brothers have been chosen to represent the city of Rome in a battle against three brothers from the neighboring city of Alba. Here, the three Horatii brothers are swearing an oath on their swords which their father presents to them to fight until they die for their city. But… one of the Horatii sisters (pictured on the right) is married to one of the men on the other side (the Curiatii). When one of the Horatii brothers returns home from the battle—the only one surviving—this sister greets him with condemnation for killing her husband and the father of her children. Because she puts herself and her family before the good of her city, her brother kills her. The message is that one must be willing to sacrifice—even sacrifice one's life and family members—for the state.

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Rejecting the Rococo style, David organizes the canvas with a geometric precision that recalls the innovation of the ancient Greeks and of the Italian Renaissance.

Composition: David divides the linear perspectival interior into a balanced nine-part square. This rigorous structure frames the three sets of figures as does the triple screen of Doric columns and arches at the far end of the room.

Light: The angle of the light heightens the muscularity of the male figures as it rakes across the surface of their bodies. This light, which enters the room from the upper left, sharply delineates mass and volume, a kind of modified tenebrism and creates, as in the work of Caravaggio, a strong sense of physicality.

As was traditional, David's Oath of the Horatii was commissioned by the King, Louis XVI as the conclusion of David's five years of study in Rome. Such a work was to be exhibited in an annual exhibition of new art held in a large room or salon in the monarch's palace in Paris, the Louvre (now the museum).

The Oath of the Horatii, 1784

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DETAIL: The Oath of the Horatii, 1784 Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris

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DETAIL: The Oath of the Horatii, 1784 Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris

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Question: How is this painting a political statement – what values does it express? The style is a reaction against…?

The painting expresses the fundamental values of NeoClassicism which were in direct contrast the French aristocracy. It shows honour, truth, courage, love of country, freedom, honesty, heroism. The message is: ‘sacrifice personal needs for the bigger picture of democracy’.The NeoClassic style is a reaction against the frivolous, self-indulgent Rococo.

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ART in MOVIES & TV: In the 9th season of CSI Vegas, during the episode called ‘Art imitates life’ there is a scene in which the CSI team arrives at an artist’s studio (Jerzy Skagg). We see that he's working on a painting of a dead man lying in a red convertible, with his arm trailing along the edge of the door. The pose is a homage to 'The Death of Marat', a 1793 painting by Jacques-Louis David. Jean-Paul Marat was a political figure in the French Revolution before his assassination in 1793. Art imitating life imitating Art.

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The Death of Marat1793, Oil on canvas,Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

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DETAIL: The Death of Marat 1793, Oil on canvas, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

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‘The Death of Marat’: historical context and background

By 1793, the violence of the French Revolution increased until the beheadings at the Place de la Concorde became a constant, leading a certain Dr. Joseph Guillotine to invent a machine that would improve the efficiency of the ax and block and therefore make executions more humane. David was in the thick of it.

Early in the Revolution he had joined the Jacobins, a political club that would in time become the most violent of the various rebel groups. Led by Georges Danton and the infamous Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins (including David) would eventually vote to execute Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antionette.

At the height of the ‘Reign of Terror’ in 1793, David painted a memorial to his great friend, the murdered publisher, Jean Marat. ‘The Death of Marat’, 1793, is an idealized image of David's friend who is shown holding his murderer's (Charlotte Corday) letter of introduction. The bloodied knife lies on the floor having opened a fatal stab wound. The composition makes reference to the entombment of Christ and also to his wounds that he received in his hands, feet and side while on the cross. By 1794, the ‘Reign of Terror’ was almost over. The Jacobins had even begun to execute not only captured aristocrats, but fellow revolutionaries as well.

David escaped death by renouncing his activities and was locked in prison in the former palace, the Louvre, until his eventual release by France's new ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon released David because he believed that the artist's talent could serve his political purposes.

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Gardner’s Art through the Ages (images) (opening clip used as a prediction activity)