To know a few details from this artist’s life is to understand some of his choices. Jacques Louis David’s life was filled with underlying turmoil from the early years. Losing his father in a duel, and gaining two stern uncles to fulfil the vital paternal role while very young, made indelible marks. The uncles thought he should be an architect or building contractor, since it was the way they made their living. In spite of being perfectly capable of the required draftsmanship, David had other ideas2.
He was obsessed with drawing. He wanted to paint. The family had expectations of the young David that did not include painting as a career, although his fixation with drawing showed everyone very soon that his talents should not go to waste. He filled sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings3, with the kind of dedication that was impossible to ignore. Both uncles finally accepted his ability to make choices and persuaded his mother, who had left him to be brought up by them, and a teacher was sought: but not too far afield. Boucher, a relative, taught art, but soon, when he saw the style David wanted to paint, and their difference in personalities, he decided his neighbour and artist friend Joseph-Marie Vien would be a better candidate as a tutor for the young David. This change is one that would mark the artist’s preferences for some time4.
A facial disfigurement marred David’s dealings with people. Because it affected his speech, he tended to prefer solitary activities, but made an effort to resist isolation, reminded of his schooldays, when he often crouched behind the teacher’s dais at school5.
Being a young man with personal issues when the ancien régime, or Old Order, was winding down, towards the end of the 18th century, meant that experiencing changes in the morals and society in general became personal. David happened to be