As a young person, David was determined to be an artist. Instead of concentrating on his schoolwork as he should, he was always drawing. He covered his notebooks with drawings and once said, “I was always hiding behind the instructor’s chair, drawing for the duration of the class.” He overcame his family’s push for him to become an architect and instead became a student of a successful painter. David tried for four years to win an award that paid for a student to study painting in Rome. He finally was successful the fifth year he tried for the award. While on his Rome trip, David filled twelve sketchbooks with drawings that he used as models for the rest of his life.
David painted in the Neoclassical style. Neoclassical paintings were serious, unemotional, and sternly heroic. Neoclassical painters depicted subjects from Classical literature and history, as used in earlier Greek and Roman art.
Many of the paintings depicted stories of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Neoclassical art became the signature style of Napoleon in France and of the American Revolution.
David was an artist who participated in the politics and power plays of his time. He was part of the ruling body during the French Revolution.
After the end of the French Revolution’s rule, Napoleon Bonaparte, a general, became so powerful that he took over the country of France as an emperor. Napoleon is known in history as one of the world’s most successful conquerors. David allied himself with Napoleon and was appointed First Painter to Napoleon’s court. David and Napoleon differed occasionally on political issues, but David’s paintings of Napoleon played an important part in establishing the emperor’s successful image, and they are among the artist’s most memorable works. For the painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, David was asked to depict how Napoleon’s army daringly crossed the Alps to surprise the Austrian army and win victory in the battle that followed. Although Napoleon had crossed the Alps on a mule, he asked David to portray him “calm upon a fiery steed.”
The painting, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, was commissioned by a Scottish duke to try to win favor with France and Napoleon. Details within the painting show Napoleon’s power as a ruler. These symbols include a map partly unrolled on the floor, a sword propped in the chair, and a lion finial of the desk, Note the letter “N” carved into the legs of the desk. The portrait was considered to be an excellent likeness and influenced many other portrayals of Napoleon. The hand tucked in the waistcoat gesture was thought to show self-control. This pose became a trademark for Napoleon.
Napoleon commissioned David to paint a huge canvas (20 X 32 ft.) that would show the emperor’s coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral. It shows Napoleon’s coronation as being very majestic and the emperor as powerful and important. The painting now hangs in the Louvre.
Although mainly a painter of historical events, David was also a great portrait painter. His portraits were remarkable for their lifelike look and the way they portrayed the person’s inner self.
Portrait of Doctor Alphonse Leroy
David made his mark in the world of art through his paintings, but he also had a big effect on art because of his teaching. David trained hundreds of young painters from all over Europe, among them several future masters themselves.
Arkansas Visual Art Frameworks
VA.6.6.14 Produce artwork inspired by or connected to content from other disciplines
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