Who Was Jacques-Louis David?

Self-Portrait / David

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) was the most famous painter in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He breathed new life into history painting with his rigorously constructed compositions, which distilled complex stories to their essential elements. His spare, taut style influenced countless other artists in France and abroad. Passionately committed to artistic freedom and innovation, David experimented constantly with style and subject matter.

David aspired to be not just a painter, but a visual historian of the great men and events of his time. He saw himself as forging the art of the future—an art that would enlighten the public and present role models of heroism and virtue.

As a person, David could be petty, graceless, and abrasive. Intensely competitive, he was confident and even boastful of his talent. "My style of painting is nothing less than brilliant," he wrote a friend in 1794.

Yet David was also a deeply emotional person, close to his wife and greatly concerned for the welfare of their four children. He inspired intense loyalty in his students, many of whom became lifelong friends. Even those who found him difficult were forced to admire his talent.