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David Paperback – November 3, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Writing on the French Revolution, Karl Marx famously commented that the heroes of the revolution "performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases." The one painter who was almost single-handedly responsible for clothing the revolution in the mantle of the classical past was Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), one of the most controversial painters to have emerged from this turbulent period in the history of modern France. Although David's austere classical style has fallen out of fashion in recent years, Simon Lee's study David does a fine job of rescuing the artist from antiquarian curiosity, and placing him right back at the heart of revolutionary France.

Lee charts the rise of David from relative mediocrity as a highly academic painter to his enthusiastic support for the Revolution of 1789, culminating in his remarkable painting Marat Breathing His Last (1793). Arrested and narrowly avoiding execution in the political backlash following the overthrow of Robespierre, David turned his back on politics to concentrate on his art, only to find himself catapulted back into the political limelight with his fervent embrace of Napoleon Bonaparte. This loyalty formed the foundation of some of David's most imposing paintings, from the equestrian portraits of Napoleon to the pomp of The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress. But once again, David's political hopes were dashed with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, which led the painter into self-imposed exile in Brussels, where he died a decade later.

Despite Lee's rather wooden prose, this is a thorough, detailed, and generously illustrated study of a fascinatingly contradictory, patrician, but technically brilliant painter. --Jerry Brotton


'This up-to-date overview of David is a seamless fusion of art and history. Filled with unfamiliar facts, observations, and corollary images, it rejuvenates the father of modern French painting within the drama of Revolution, Empire and Restoration.' (Robert Rosenblum, Department of Fine Arts, New York University) 'Art & Ideas has broken new ground in making accessible authoritative views on periods, movements and concepts in art. As a series it represents a real advance in publishing.' (Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate London) 'The format is wonderful and offers what had long been missing in academic studies: usable manuals for specific themes or periods...I am definitely not alone in welcoming Art & Ideas as a precious set of teaching tools.'(Joachim Pissarro, Yale University)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Phaidon Press (November 3, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0714838047
  • ISBN-13: 978-0714838045
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.8 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,121,513 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Sara on August 11, 2001
Format: Paperback
I was thoroughly impressed with this profile of Jacques-Louis David. It was given to me as a gift and I was not sure of quite what to expect. From my experience, David is often given little more than a few pages (or even a few brief paragraphs) in art textbooks and thus if a person wants to know more, it is necessary to do a bit of digging.
From the introduction, my fear was dispelled and I knew I was in for a treat. The author discusses David's personal life, his political ideas and involvement, the relevant historical details, and David's works. The illustrations are wonderful and aside from David's paintings and sketches, the works of artists like Boucher, Vien, Caravaggio, Poussin, Gros and Ingres are included. Lee generally gives a fair amount of analysis on each of David's works. Most students will recognize The Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates, and Marat Breathing his Last but will also see and learn about The Coronation, The Distribution of the Eagle Standards, Brutus, Intervention of the Sabine Women, Belisarius Receiving Alms and Mars Disarmed By Venus, to name a few. Regarding the politics of the French Revolution, Lee discusses David's role, his allies, his enemies, and his skillful use of paintings as propaganda. We see David shift from painter to the monarchy to painter for the Revolution to painter for Napoleon to painter for himself, warts and all. One should not assume that Lee candy-coats the issues in this book. He neither presents David as a flawless genius nor spoils the book with pretentious blather. The text is informative and sophisticated without being cumbersome or haughty.
Other great features of the book include a convenient glossary, short biographies on pertinent figures, a map and a timeline. Whether you are an expert art historian or a student, you will find this book to be a great addition.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 29, 2011
Format: Paperback
Jacques-Louis David falls in and out of favor among critics and artists alike. But few can deny the impact that this rather frail man had on the times in which he lived. His life, as well outlined by Simon Lee, was full of major and minor tragedies: his failure to gain the prestigious Prix de Rome made him decide to starve himself to death until he finally was awarded the coveted prize in 1774, he was imprisoned for his allegiance to the French Revolution, he was physically challenged by a distorted face that affected his speech, etc. He was absorbed by the magnificence of the manner in which the Italian masters depicted man and he elected to move into this 'neoclassicism' arena to raise the public opinion of the common man at odds with the reigning royalty, thus being one of the early champions of the Revolutionary movement in France - and subsequently across the globe. His political convictions created an alliance with some tragic figures such as Jean Paul Marat and Robespierre and even Napoleon Bonaparte, each of these figure he portrayed in multiple famous paintings.

PHAIDON traditionally provides small scale but well produced biographies of artists and this is no exception. The generous sampling of David's paintings is richly saturated with color and the annotations provided by Simon are correct and well researched. This may not be the definitive volume on this important artist, but it is a fine introduction to a tragic hero whose dramatic changes in both art and political history are worthy of study. Grady Harp, March 11
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Peter D. Bellone on April 4, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I just finished reading this book and it is great. The words flow as well as the the color pictures. Every painting Mr. Lee writes about is also presented. One couldn't ask for more. The last person who wrote the moronic review doesn't know what he is talking about. The naked person in the book he is refering to is a modern artist who posed for a picture to make a work of art in minutes instead of the way of David, that is the way of skill. In short the picture of the naked guy is just some lazy slob that doesn't reflect on the book whatsoever. Well I question why Mr. Lee would included it, but in my opinion that lapse is the only one in the book.
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