After studying at the French academy, David won the coveted Rome prize, which enabled him to make the essential journey to Italy. Once there, he was inspired by high renaissance and seventeenth-century painters as well as the Antique and his St Roch Altarpiece of 1780 (musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille) shows the influence of Caravaggio (1571–1610) and Guercino (1591–1666). His reputation was made with his fully-fledged neo-classical Oath of the Horatii (1784, musée du Louvre). This masterpiece has been held to anticipate the republican ideals of the Revolution, but its message is equally the moral imperative of commitment to a just cause. His later The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons adds a rider that such commitment demands great personal sacrifice.
David supported the Revolution and embarked on an unfinished Oath of the Tennis Court, a key event in the fall of the Ancien Régime. His painting of the death of the revolutionary leader Marat of 1793, starkly highlights the risks of political turmoil. Just prior to the Napoleonic era, David began to develop “a pure Greek style”. The most representative example is the Intervention of the Sabine Women which enters a plea for reconciliation in uncertain times. In 1799, David painted his future master and empire builder on a fiery charger crossing the Alps on his way to conquer Italy (he actually rode on a mule). David’s most lavish homage to the emperor was the Coronation of Napoleon (1805–7). This took him some time to do because of the numerous portraits. The Distribution of the Eagles (Château de Versailles, 1810) less well-known or admired, inadvertently reveals the cockiness of the all-conquering French which so grated on their British opponents.
After the Bourbon Restoration David went into exile in Brussels. His Mars denounced by Venus (1821–4), is a more svelte version of his Napoleonic classicism to suit more relaxed Restoration taste. He was highly successful in Belgium as a portraitist, a genre at which he had always excelled. Notable examples from earlier in his career include the pre-Revolution portrait of the scientist Lavoisier and his Wife (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) a tender portrayal of conjugal felicity and the meeting of minds, and one of the famous beauty Madame Récamier where he successfully adapts his Grecian manner to society portraiture. The most sympathetic and intimate of his portraits is of Napoleon in his Study but a more direct relationship between sitter and spectator is achieved in a portrait of one of his officials Count Français de Nantes (musée Jacquemart-André, Paris). The Brussels portraits like the Bonaparte Sisters (National Gallery, London) or General Gerard (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) are just as good and keenly observed and moving accounts of the disappointments of exile and defeat.