David's Career as a Revolutionary

Jacques-Louis David was feverishly committed to the French Revolution and its principles of patriotism, equality, and hatred of tyranny. His zeal was fueled by a resentment of the elite Academy system that controlled French art, a dislike of rules and hierarchies, and a belief that merit should be rewarded above birth or social standing.

Elected to the National Convention in 1792, he became the head of the Committee for General Security, which ran France like a police state. He signed over 140 arrest and death warrants, helping send real and suspected anti-revolutionaries to the guillotine. In February 1793 he voted for the death of King Louis XVI.

David was also the guiding member of the Committee for Public Instruction, which orchestrated grand propaganda festivals to whip the people of Paris into a frenzy of support for the Revolution. He planned the festivals' parade routes, directed their elaborate costumes and pantomimes, and designed enormous temporary monuments and sculptures. He also designed costumes for the citizens of the new republic and painted emotional images of martyrs of the Revolution, such as Jean Paul Marat (see image above).

Several of David's revolutionary works, such as the Oath of the Tennis Court, never came to completion. Nor did his most ambitious project, a 46-foot bronze statue of Hercules to be set on a base made of the smashed sculptures of French kings.

David was a fervent ally of Maximilien Robespierre, who spearheaded the bloody period of the Revolution known as the Reign of Terror (1792-1794). When Robespierre fell from power, however, David was arrested and imprisoned by the Committee for General Security, the very committee on which he had served. He spent months in prison under the threat of death. Persecuting rival artists, overspending wildly on revolutionary celebrations, and supporting the Reign of Terror were just three of the many charges against him.

Private Citizen
After he was released from prison in 1795, David rejected political activities and devoted himself to painting and teaching. He took refuge in portraiture and returned to history painting with entrepreneurial flair, displaying The Intervention of the Sabine Women across from a large mirror in his studio, writing a brochure, and charging admission. Though controversial, this one-man show was thronged by curious Parisians and foreign tourists.

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