Jacques Louis David and Neoclassicism

Jacques Louis David was a product of the late 18th century French academy system of developing artistic talent through an emphasis on drawing from the model.  David’s talent, skill and social acumen catapulted him eventually to be court painter to Napoleon.  David’s beliefs on what constituted “Art” in painting differed dramatically from our perception today.  What are your thoughts on David’s understanding of “Art” as evidenced from the following statements made by the famed French Neoclassic painter and by one of his figure studies:

“In the arts the way in which an idea is rendered, and the manner in which it is expressed, is much more important than the idea itself.  To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this – and only this – is to be an artist.”

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


23 thoughts on “Jacques Louis David and Neoclassicism”

  1. David is saying that people cannot call themselves artists from their ideas alone. Ideas will only take one so far, but a true artist can and will produce a result. To David, there is no point in ideas without execution.
    This is also true when extending this thought to mean that sometimes we can create something without intending it to turn out that way. Ideas are our initial thoughts about creating an art piece, but if we don’t carry out these ideas, nothing really will ever come of it. Sometimes, if art doesn’t turn out the way we mean to, it can actually turn into something even better and more beautiful than we thought.
    Also, it can also be directed at those who only have thoughts and ideas about what they want to create or what they want others to believe they can create, but never actually get around to producing anything. To David, these people are phonies and a true artist does not need to express their thoughts into words for others to listen, but simply create something visual- which will be all the expression they need.
    On a more literal sense, painting the human form was an important skill for an artist at the time of David. Drawing from a model was how artists developed their talent. They proved their skill by showing what they had physically created. For David and many others, this was the only way to learn and to prove what an artist truly was. Although he created some truly beautiful and striking paintings, it would be interesting to discover David’s thoughts on philosophy or science and whether or not the great thinkers before him, such as Da Vinci (for his other work besides the drawings and paintings) could be considered artists as well.

  2. David’s statement holds some truth to it. An idea can be great, but it has to be expressed well. Considering David’s attraction to the figure of Napoleon and to the Jacobin’s during the French Revolution, he obviously was drawn to ideas. Even though his statement is expressing that an idea has to be rendered well for a person to call themselves and artist, an idea can be rendered in many forms. It can be in painting and drawing as David has done, or in writing, or even just a good oration. A person who can form an idea into something that can draw people in and capture them such as David’s paintings did to the French public can be considered an artist even though it may not be so tangible as the form of paint. As a person who writes, forming an idea into something that others are willing to give up their time to explore is a difficult task and takes work. I have to agree with David that creating something powerful takes an artist of sorts and that that artist cannot simply keep the idea in their head. The idea has to be made into something to be shared and used before it can have any power. Everyone has ideas, but only a few know how to represent them properly.

  3. If David’s artistic ideas sound a bit creaky, and leak a little today, it’s hardly surprising; nor can he be faulted either.  

    He is without a doubt a man of his times, an extremely virile actor in the deadly difficult age of the French Revolution.  Voting for the decapitation of a French king (Louis XVI), as he did, is not a casual, daily decision of the feeble-minded.  (With the return of a Bourbon king after Napoleon’s exile, David was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the killing of Louis XVI, and, further, for his role in the abominable treatment, starvation, and death of his young son, Louis XVII.  However, he was granted amnesty by the new Bourbon, Louis XVIII.)  He was labeled as the “ferocious terrorist” at one point during the Revolution, and his willingness to support the guillotining of hundreds, if not thousands, of victims is further evidence of his extreme opinions.  As an prominent member (he was one of five) of the all-powerful Committee of General Security, David actively encouraged and directly promoted the Reign of Terror that seized anxious, revolutionary France.  He was further highly visible politically, sponsoring and organizing public festivals, celebrations, and funerals memorializing the deaths of several anti-Royalist revolutionaries.  He was evidently absolutely unafraid to exhibit his political proclivities, and presumably willing to accept the potential fatal consequences of such activities.  (Though, somehow,  a convenient belly ache prevented his co-guillotining with his close associate Robespierre.) 

     In David’s ninth year, his father was killed in a dueling incident, and David himself suffered a lifelong speech impediment caused by a facial tumor that was the result of deep cutting sword-stroke in a fencing accident.  Presumably, this fierce history allowed (or, perhaps, forced) him to express unabashedly and vehemently on any important topic in his life.  Yet, issuing an declaration, even a strong, absolute one, about his approach to painting is considerably tamer than his revolutionary performance.  But for non-violent, artistic sorts like ourselves, his assertion, that artistic execution is more important than the artistic idea, still has impact. Many, if not most of us, still want to execute well.  (Though, apparently, we’re also more enamored with good artistic ideas than he.) However, his comment is less relevant today.  But for David himself and his age, his statement seems entirely appropriate and accurate, and his art work and ideas became necessary stepping stones for his students and admirers (Gros, Girodet-Trioson, Ingres and Gericault).

    As is said, life is not a dress rehearsal, it’s a one-take proposition; you work hard, take your best shot, and accept the consequences, and David represents that idea as well as any historical figure.

  4. This artist lead a fascinating and politically charged life. It was innovative of him to use classical literature to create imagery promoting political themes such as self-sacrifice for ones country. His mastery of form, color and light are evident in his paintings. With the combination of well understood fundamentals and underlying themes, audiences are drawn in to the painting to study the image in depth. This power to captivate is an artistic success. He was an artist with very strong perspectives for his day. In fact, he almost lost his life for his strong views. It is interesting to me how his work became more idealized as his patron Napoleon won his fasination. To become a propaganda artist is never a liberating thing. Yet, he was still captivated by the magic of his subject and was therefore painting with a degree of passion. This passion and the meaningful intent of the work is what salvages the manipulative quality of the work for me.

  5. Napoleon commissioned David not just for his skill or because he made Napoleon look mighty, but because David captured something more than Napoleons image; he captured his character. In David’s painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps you see a self assured formidable figure, someone that exudes power. David didn’t portray Napoleon like this just as some conciliatory way to gain Napoleon’s favor, but to show the world what he say.
    Like Rembrandt, David could paint more than what just the eye could see.
    He didn’t just paint what he saw-he painted what he felt.

  6. David’s perception of art is much more than the skill of drawing and painting. It is the creation of an idea and thought depicted through the mediums of paint and canvas. When David composted his paintings he did not just pick up a canvas and start applying paint. He did drafts on paper first, thought out symbolic meanings, and how he could get his idea across through his painting. His paintings of Napoleon are great examples of this. From history books we know that Napoleon did not cross the mountains on a beautiful stallion, but on a mule. This image would not have been seen as heroic, so David made the proper alternations to get the “heroic” sense across.
    David was an amazing artist, which stemmed from his ability to emit his ideas through art.

  7. From this quote it is evident that David believed that the execution and aesthetic appeal of art is more important than the concept being depicted. I think a lot of people still have his view that what it means to be an artist is to depict a subject as beautiful and perfect. It’s not necessarily a wrong view even though a lot of people nowadays would disagree and would instead say that a strong concept is more important than the aesthetic appeal of the subject. Personally I think that the goal of one’s artwork does not have to strictly adhere to one point of view or the other. Sometimes it might be the goal to depict something as beautiful and visually appealing, and other times, the artist would want to focus on communicating a strong idea, and put the aesthetic appeal in a position of less importance.

  8. From the quote, this is similar to Petrarch going to the top of the mountain to get a different perspective. In general terms, this could be any artist trying to figure out the best manner in which to express the idea.

  9. David was a classically trained artist, by saying this it means he is structured in a way that is imperative to see an idea out completely from start to finish. Many people can learn to draw or paint and even do it well. Although, I think he is saying, the mission of creating a perfect likeness and a correct likeness is secondary to how the how you send that message in your art. How an artist completes his vision is paramount to the process of creating a memorable work of art. His Napoleon Crossing the Alps wasn’t a true likeness but, it presented an image that was a perfect form as well as an expression Napoleons power and influence. He presented Napoleon as a “fearless leader” and in this grand portrayal he created a lasting image of Napoleon being strong and powerful. To have he ability to create a flawless expression of your idea in tune with the perfect representation of the subject is what David believes is makes a real artist.

  10. I have heard from other artists that art is five percent talent and ninety-five percent hard work. Jacques Louis David seems spot on with his similar interpretation of what art really is about. Converting a good concept or idea (be it political or aesthetically pleasing) into a finished piece of art is one definition of what an artist truly is to society. So long as an artist keeps this in mind, I think he or she can be as successful as David was when he was the court painter for Napoleon.

  11. I think David’s definition of art is based on the final product. I have to disagree for the most part with David because I think the idea is included in the art. It’s the mind’s eye that opens first and allows us to create the art that is he referring to. He actually said the way the idea is expressed and rendered is more important than the idea itself. It’s like saying the egg is more important than the chicken. And then he states how making your thoughts tangible in a sense is what art is. Really, it’s a never ending cycle in search of an origination but the origin is just as important as the journey to the destination so that is why I do not agree entirely, which is to say I do not exactly disagree that the art is in the expression, whether it be how or why.

  12. David was very passionate, in all things he did. David lived in the moment, he couldn’t hide his ideas and beliefs, from his mechanics and artistic beliefs to his Political views. I’m sure there were several others who felt the same way David felt, they just didn’t have the backbone to have his ideas and beliefs out there. He painted what he felt, he painted who he was, I looked for some quotes to help me explain David and none was better than “Every good painter paints what he is” (Jack Pollock).

    David’s paintings were filled with his passion, he painted his works so that we could see what he saw, what he felt about the subject he painted. Its a glimpse of the world through Davids Eyes.

  13. I do think execution of a piece plays a great deal in the final product of the image and at the very end, it is one of the most important factors in an art piece in my opinion. When thinking about it from a commissioner’s point of view, of course they would want something that’s executed brilliantly with a mediocre idea rather than a poor execution with a brilliant idea. Although I don’t think execution is the sole thing that decides whether a piece touches the souls of its viewers or not I do believe David is correct in the sense that it has to be done well.
    Also I think this statement can hold quite true to today’s time. It may seem like many artworks in our time today seem to be executed sloppily, or less than in David’s, but I think execution is based on what the artist has in mind for the final product. If the artist believes the perfect execution to a piece is just these few strokes of paint and if he/she is able to achieve perfection, their vision, through that then I think a painting would still be considered executed well. To paint in few strokes, many, to mix the colors or not, to create a smooth surface or a textured surface, all of these can be considered well executed today.

  14. I agree with others with the interpretation of David’s quote as him simply stating that an idea without action of execution has no meaning at all, but an idea with action of proper execution can mean everything. It is a bold statement that holds much meaning to be true considering that with any good idea, an execution is to follow, and that an idea without execution ceases past just an idea in someone’s mind. Without execution, the idea will forever be trapped within the mind of the beholder and never to be shared with the world.

  15. Just as a writer writes, a dancer dances, a musician creates music, a potter makes a pot, the painter paints a picture. An idea is created by the life experienced through the senses of the creator. The expression of these ideas is made into form and a piece of the imagination of the creator is then given to others. An idea expressed through art doesn’t have to be what is actually seen but a formation in the mind of a possibility. This is what I feel David was expressing.

  16. David was somewhat of a person who understood his time. Agreeing with Silvanas comment a painter paints a picture along with the rest david is something of exactly that. his genuine idea of expressing the figure was either expressed with nobility or exaggerated then maybe what the real figure looked like giving is a more dramatic feel.

  17. In the quote, “In the arts the way in which an idea is rendered, and the manner in which it is expressed, is much more important than the idea itself,” I feel as though it parallels with the meaning that the journey is more important than the destination. With that said, David expresses the fact that it was important to brainstorm ideas before painting or beginning any artwork. This method works for some artists, as they research any ideas to help their piece. However, many other artists sometimes bring out the spontaneity in their work which makes it stronger.

  18. Art is the vehicle that can take the passenger, an idea, around the world and back. All that is needed is the gas of determination. A driver with a sense of unwavering vision, and an engine of dedication that can climb the highest mountain.

  19. David valued the form and execution of art far greater than the concept that drove that execution. While I don’t think I personally agree that the idea is so less important to creating art than the execution, there is still something to be taken from David’s words, even today. All artists are driven by ideas, and the creation of art is the culmination of those ideas; it is only natural that an artist wants to represent their thoughts and plans in the most perfect manner possible. However, “art” is a very ephemeral term, and carries a different meaning for every person, as does this perfection vary from artist to artist. To David, it was the perfect execution of form within his works. It’s important to recognize both what you desire out of art, but it can also be important to understand what the artist desired out of it as well.

  20. With any artist’s idea of what art really is I try and relate their opinion to my own life. David believed that no matter what the subject or original idea is, even if it is a horrible idea that he had no interest in, he would try and make it look its possible best. It does not matter if it is a human form or an apple, it matters how that is portrayed on the canvas and how well it is painted and expressed in its own original way. David would do many sketches before creating a painting in order to get it to be the most aesthetically pleasing. I relate this to working at a tattoo shop. No matter how bad a person’s idea is you do your best to make it the best it could possibly be especially since it will be on that person forever. It could be a rose that someone wants but every time you do it you try and put a new spin on it to be the coolest rose that you have done.

  21. I think great art can go many different ways. I dont believe that only a well executed and well thought out portrait is any better or any less then a spontanius portrait. It all depends on what the viewer is looking for in the work of art, are they merely looking for something pleasant to the eye a story being told or do they want emotion do they wan the piece of art to touch thier soul or talk to them.

  22. This is an answer to the great artist dilemma in which that we as artist come up with an idea we as the individual artist think its a perfect idea. Yet it could be because in our mind its flawless but bringing that idea forward into the physical world, takes many things to allow it to be perfect, it takes timing, execution, manner of expression, and the right rendering of the idea as a work of art. But as David is say between the lines as it were is that, the artist knows, when and how to strike, to create that body and perfect form. To maintain the correct rendering of the idea. that makes them an artist. Yet if they fail at this they are not an artist but still a student trying to be an artist.

  23. I love this comment because it totally contradicts itself to our minds today . We beleive that the way we render something and the manner in which it expressed is the meaning of art and we do not always think that it s a perfect form. today we do not hold the artist to such high standards … we accept anything now days based on the idea and the concept .. i think that davids understanding of art was n=more accurate than ours today .. call me old fashioned but there is something amazing about a person and the human hand to be able to create the exact photo of someone . this is true eyesight and total self control.

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