About to finish his course of studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Jacques Louis David recognized his career as an artist in France would be solidified if her were to win the Prix de Rome. David competed for the Prix de Rome in 1773 but was unsuccessful. After a period of depression ameliorated by his fellow students who successfully pulled him out of his sorrow, David recommitted himself to strive once again for the prestigious French travel scholarship first established in 1663 by King Louis XIV. In 1774, David won and was awarded a bursary that allowed him to study at the Rome Academy for three to five years of research. All costs were covered by the French state.
Spending years in Rome amongst the classical architecture ruins of ancient Rome complete with sculpture images of the glory that was Rome, David filled drawing tablets and sketch books with images drawn from primary sources of classical form as exemplified by Roman artisans. Upon his return to Paris, David had a clear vision of how he wanted to establish his career as a painter at the end of the 18th century. David brought his notebooks and drawings which would provide him with a bounty of images for the narrative paintings that would elevate him to the pinnacle of French painting at the end of the 18th century. This time frame for a young and talented artist to formulate his future coincided with the violent political, cultural, economic and military unrest that was the French Revolution of 1789! David found himself in the right place at the right time to shape the future of French painting during the fin de siecle.
Johann J. Winkelmann, the famed 18th century German art historian and archeologist, wrote the following in his seminal book Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture (1755): “Good taste, which is spreading more and more throughout the world, had its beginnings under a Greek sky…To take the ancients for models is our only way to become great, yes, unsurpassable if we can.”
What are your thoughts on the choice of an emerging young painter to cast his eyes backward into the past and embrace another round of classicism? Under David’s leadership, France lead Europe into a cultural expression that is known as Neoclassicism (New Classicism)! Two of these drawings were from David’s Roman journal and the other drawing is a preliminary sketch for his great masterpiece The Oath of the Horatii.