I have a new online lecture series coming in October on Jacques Louis David. A complicated painter whose work and politics proved pivotal in the history of France. He is undeniably a fascinating study.
The French Revolution
Living and painting during the tumultuous years before, during, and after the French Revolution, David was intimately involved in the politics of his day. He held a variety of political posts during the short years of the French Republic, including Minister of Propaganda and serving on the Committee of Public Safety, (the group responsible for the guillotining of tens of thousands.) His radical politics earned him the nickname, “Ferocious Terrorist.” With a mercurial temperament, an arrogant personality, and undeniable talent, his art defined a moment in time.
I find David’s art compelling. Often described as the principle proponent of the Neoclassical style, his art is narrative, telling stories that are meant to elevate the spirit and morals of the viewer. I find myself torn by the beauty of his art, and the cruelty he participated in, in life. The contradictions fascinate, and invite us to look deeper at the man and the society that shaped him.
During this series of lectures on Jacques Louis David, we will talk about David’s stringent art training in the competitive system of French Academies. These Academies powerfully controlled his life for years. While he benefited from the training they afforded, he found their pretentious, snobbishness stifling and often, insulting. As David worked to upset the established order through revolution, he also took aim at the Academies that were funded by, and glorified the monarchy.
The lectures will explore how Enlightenment philosophy, the American Revolution, and the financial turmoil in France shaped and molded David’s political ideals. In a few violent years, the French Revolution would transform France. In viewing these years through the art of David, our lectures will explore the ideals of revolution and republic, including how the visual arts can effectively define and communicate the message of movements and governments. Embracing the role of Minister of Propaganda, while exciting for a time, would haunt David for his entire life.
Propaganda needs a vehicle, visual images that are understood by the viewer. David used the heroic tales of Ancient Greece and Rome to promote his beliefs about citizenship, sacrificial duty, and the Republic. As we examine his paintings we will learn these stories and enter an intellectual conversation with the artist. His works are far more than beautiful, balanced compositions. Each element; color, light, figures, are integral to the message David is crafting.
As the Republic that David helped build and support, crumbles, he is imprisoned. After the imprisonment, David’s art undergoes changes. We will explore these when we examine his work, The Intervention of the Sabine Women.
As David is released from prison, he gives his support to the Republic’s star general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Again, the contradictions of the artist intrigue me. He signed the death warrant of King Louis XVI, seemingly committed to the ideals of a Republic, yet, a few years later, he is the court painter to an emperor. His writings show that he was impressed by Bonaparte from the first, and lent his considerable talents to again, propagandize for a new regime.
As we examine the works David created for Napoleon, we see the intentional creation of a new kind of hero. A man of the people, worthy to rule, not due to noble birth, but because of the skills and character he possessed. In this portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps, David has created a compelling image that bears little resemblance to reality. In real life, (Napoleon crossed the Alps on a donkey. Actually, I think I’d enjoy that painting.) Where does the line between artistic license in a portrait end and propaganda begin?
Restoration of the Monarchy
With the fall of Napoleon, King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne, and France once again had a Bourbon monarch. In a short 25 years, France’s Revolution had made a complete revolution, circling back around to a King. King Louis XVIII showed mercy and offered David amnesty for his crimes, and an invitation to be court painter. David chose, instead, to go into self-exile for the remainder of his life in Brussels.
You can check out the promotional video I’ve included at the bottom of this post to see more of his work.
There will be two separate lecture series, both starting on October 7th.
The daytime series is intended for Jr. High and High School students and will be from noon to 1:30.
The evening series will be for adults.
I’ll be doing the series online over zoom. If you would like to join me, I’ll need you to sign up here, so that I can send you the zoom link.
The lecture series is free, but if you would like to make a donation to support my work there will be several options available. After the series is over, I’ll be editing and uploading the series onto my store.