Jacques-Louis David studied drawing and the literary classics before being accepted into the Académie Royale at the young age of eighteen. After eight years of struggle, he finally won the coveted Prix de Rome. Visits to ruins, exposure to Neoclassical doctrines, and study of Nicolas Poussin's classicism encouraged him to adopt a style and subject matter derived from antiquity.
Returning in Paris in 1780, David soon prospered. Large canvases of classical themes brought him election to the Académie Royale in 1784 and sensational success at the Paris Salon in 1785. His firm linear contours, even lighting, pure colors, and frieze-like composition were admired, but more than his style was revolutionary. The paintings came to be regarded as a political manifesto for ending the corruption of an effete aristocracy and returning to the stern, patriotic morals attributed to republican Rome.
"The Robespierre of the brush," David served in the French Revolutionary government, painted portraits of its leaders, designed its republican festivals and funerals, and suffered imprisonment when the political winds shifted. Despite his impassioned earlier rhetoric-"The artist must be a philosopher.... an artistic genius should have no other guide except the torch of reason"-David handily transferred his loyalties to Napoleon Bonaparte, the new ruler of France. Exiled to Brussels after Napoleon's fall from power, David continued to train young painters and draftsmen.