Two Martyred Deaths and a Crossing

French painter Jacques-Louis David, was born into a prosperous French family in Paris on 30 August, 1748. When he was nine, his father was killed in a duel and his mother left him with his well-off architect uncles. They saw to it that David received an excellent education at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, University of Paris; but he was never a good student. David had a facial tumour that impeded his speech, and he was always preoccupied with drawing. Despite the family wanting him to study architecture, David chose to study art from François Boucher (1703–1770), who was also a distant relative. He later studied with Joseph-Marie Vien. There, David attended the Royal Academy, based in what is now the Louvre.

  • After winning the Prix de Rome, David went to Italy, where he studied the works of 17th Century masters such as Caravaggio. During the trip, David also studied the High Renaissance painters, such as Raphael, making a profound and lasting impression on the young French artist.

David became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, David aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release: that of Napoleon, the First Consul of France. David developed his Empire style, notable for its use of warm Venetian colours. After Napoleon’s fall from Imperial power and the Bourbon revival, David exiled himself to Brussels. He later moved to the Netherlands, where he remained until his death on 29 December, 1825. Featured here are three of his works:

  • The Death of Marat (1793) features the murdered French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat (24 May 1743 – 13 July 1793). It is one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. The painting shows the radical journalist lying dead in his bath, after his murder, by Charlotte Corday. Marat was one of the leaders of the Montagnards, the radical faction ascendant in French politics during the Reign of Terror, until the Thermidorian Reaction. Corday was a Girondin, from a minor aristocratic family and a political enemy of Marat; who blamed him for the September Massacre. She gained entrance to Marat’s rooms, with a note promising details of a counter-revolutionary ring in Caen, and then fatally stabbed Marat. She was later tried and executed for the murder. Painted in the months after Marat’s murder, the painting is displayed in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. A replica created by the artist’s studio, is on display at the Louvre.
  • Napoleon Crossing the Saint-Bernard Pass. After Napoleon Bonaparte’s successful coup d’état in 1799, as First Consul he commissioned David to commemorate his daring crossing of the Alps. The crossing of the St. Bernard Pass had allowed the French to surprise the Austrian army, and win victory at the Battle of Marengo, on 14 June, 1800. Although Napoleon had crossed the Alps on a mule, he requested that he be portrayed “calm upon a fiery steed”. After the proclamation of the Empire in 1804, David became the official court painter of the regime.
  • The Death of Bara (1794) is an incomplete painting now in the Musée Calvet in Avignon. Joseph Bara, was a young drummer in the army of the French First Republic, who was killed by the Vendéens. He became a hero and martyr of the French Revolution. Along with The Death of Marat, and The Last Moments of Michel Lepeletier, the painting formed part of a series by David, showing such martyrs. There is also an anonymous contemporary copy dating to 1794, now in the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, and exhibited at the Musée de la Révolution française.

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