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Simon Schama’s Power Of Art: David

Airs Thursday, May 27, 2010 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Jaques-Louis David's "The Death of Marat."

Born to a wealthy Parisian family, Jacques-Louis David was aged seven when his father was shot dead in a pistol duel. Brought up by his uncles, his desire was to paint and he was eventually sent to his mother's cousin, Francois Boucher, the most successful painter in France at the time.

Painting became an important means of communication for David since his face was slashed during a sword fight and his speech became impeded by a benign tumour that developed from the wound, leading him to stammer. He was interested in painting in a new classical style that departed from the frivolity of the Rococo period and reflected the moral and austere climate before the French Revolution.

"Power of Art" series host Simon Schama
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Above: "Power of Art" series host Simon Schama

David became closely aligned with the republican government and his work was increasingly used as propaganda with the "Death of Marat" proving his most controversial work.

Simon Schama on David

"If there's ever a picture that would make you want to die for a cause, it is Jacque-Louis David's Death of Marat. That's what makes it so dangerous - hidden away from view for so many years. I'm not sure how I feel about this painting, except deeply conflicted. You can't doubt that it's a solid gold masterpiece, but that's to separate it from the appalling moment of its creation, the French Revolution. This is Jean-Paul Marat, the most paranoid of the Revolution's fanatics, exhaling his very last breath. He's been assassinated in his bath. But for David, Marat isn't a monster, he's a saint. This is martyrdom, David's manifesto of revolutionary virtue."

Video

Video Excerpt: Simon Schama's Power Of Art: David

Above: Internationally acclaimed scholar and writer Simon Schama tells the dramatic stories behind eight cutting-edge masterpieces - eight artist troublemakers in deep trouble, eight stories of disaster and triumph, and eight events that ultimately changed the way the world looks at art. This excerpt is from the episode about Jacques-Louis David.