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Saturday, August 10, 2013

David, Jacques Louis


Madame Recamier
1800
oil on canvas
173 x 244 cm
The Louvre Museum, Paris, France

A portrait of the Parisian socialite Juliette Recamier, showing her in the height of Neoclassical fashion, reclining on an Directoire style sofa in a simple empire line dress with almost bare arms, and short hair. He began it in May 1800 but may have left it unfinished when he learned that Francois Gerard had been commissioned before him to paint a portrait of the same model (Gerard's portrait was completed in 1802). 
The pose of a reclining figure looking back over her shoulder was adopted in 1814 by Ingres for his Grande Odalisque. Rene Magritte also parodied David's painting in his own Perspective: Madame Recamier by David, showing a coffin reclining.

Jacques Louis David (1748 - 1825) was the most celebrated highly influential French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the prominent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and severity, chiming with the moral climate of the final years of the Ancien Regime.

David won wide acclaim with his huge canvases on classical themes. He was a painter to the king, Louis XVI, who had been the purchaser of his principal works, and his popularity was soon immense. He later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre, and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre's fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon I. It was at this time that he developed his 'Empire style', notable for its use of warm Venetian colors. David had a huge number of pupils, making him the strongest influence in French art of the 19th century, especially academic Salon painting.

David was born in the year when new excavations at the ash-buried ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were beginning to encourage a stylistic return to antiquity. His father, a prosperous dealer in textiles, was killed in a duel in 1757, and he was subsequently raised by two uncles. After classical literary studies and a course in drawing, he was placed in the studio of a history painter. At age 18 he was enrolled in the school of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. After four failures in the official competitions and years of discouragement that included an attempt at suicide, he finally obtained, in 1774, the Prix de Rome, a government scholarship that not only provided a stay in Italy but practically guaranteed lucrative commissions in France. In Italy there were many influences, including those of the dark-toned 17th-century Bolognese school, the serenely classical Nicolas Poussin, and the dramatically realistic Caravaggio. David absorbed all three, with an evident preference for the strong light and shade of the followers of Caravaggio.