David was one of the most illustrious painters of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He lived during a turbulent time in France, living through the French Revolution and then Napoleon’s rise to power. But Jacques-Louis David stayed strong during it all, defeating all the odds of loosing favor as factions changed and opinions were swayed. In fact, during the time of the French Revolution, David sided not with those loyal to king, something that would have made sense given that those who often pay commission paintings, altar pieces and other works of art are those with so much extra money readily at their disposal. But David’s revolutionary tendencies can be seen in his work.
Death of Marat is a moving piece, no matter any opinion on the French Revolution. Marat, a Jacobin journalist, was a close friend of Marat. In fact, David had visited his friend only the day before his murder and afterwards was put in charge of arranging Marat’s funeral. Marat lies slumped over the side of the bathtub, one arm dangling out. A quill is still clutched in his hand, a paper in the other. Blood can been seen both inside the bathtub in which Marat sits as well as on the white cloth draped over the edge of the bath. The scene may look odd at first glance, or else something from a murder mystery novel. A man murdered in his bath as he writes a letter. Marat took medicinal baths on a regular basis, and it was this very thing that he was doing at the time of his murder. David is even recorded as saying that he had seen Marat write down his philosophies or journalism ideas by using a large wooden crate as table in just the same way as the painting depicts.
But David didn’t always paint the plight of the Revolutionaries. Before long the Revolution had run its course and France found itself once again under a monarchy. But David adapted quickly and soon found Napoleon himself as patron. But David’s most iconic work wasn’t commissioned by either Napoleon or any of the French Revolutionaries. King Charles IV of Spain commissioned David for a painting of his contemporary Napoleon. What David created was his Napoleon Crossing the Alps at the Saint-Bernard Pass. Napoleon points up the pass, red cape billowing around his shoulders, horse rearing as it prepares to charge up the hillside. The French ruler looks out at the viewer with a confident, assured look, seeming ever bit a man we should trust.
One of David’s most remarkable abilities was his ability to adapt. Through such a turbulent time that made and destroyed everyone from kings to merchants, David managed to stay above it all. He was an iconic painter at the turn of the 18th century whose work is still revered the world over.