Painting in Tumultous TimesDuring the nineteenth century in France, art, and especially painting, flowered to a degree not seen since the Renaissance in Italy three hundred years before. The centre of gravity in the art world moved to Paris in the 1700's where it would remain for almost two hundred years. Styles and movements came and went with great fanfare and the development of art and painting gained a momentum heretofore unknown. Without a doubt, the father of this French resurgence in painting was Jacques-Louis David (pronounced Da-veed).
David was born in 1748 and died in 1825. These were tumultuous times in French history coinciding with the rise of the French monarchy, its fall during the French Revolution, followed by the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Add to that a few more uprisings and coup d'etats mixed in at regular intervals, and you have the makings of an "exciting" era in which to paint. David's career as an artist during this time could be likened to a surfer riding (and sometimes falling) - victim to great waves of political and social turmoil.
Having won the prestigious Prix de Rome, (a year of study in Rome, free of charge), David was a product of the French Académie establishment. His classical Oath of the Horatii (1784-5) is an icon to officially sanctioned art. His Death of Marat in 1793 became a similar icon for the French Revolution. And just a few years later in 1800, in his Napoleon Crossing the Alps, we see the ironic end to a fervent revolutionary as the artist jumps on board the movement of yet another ruling elite. Is this the mark of political astuteness or merely a career tossed and turned in a sea of tortured change? Perhaps both.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 January 1998