Monday, January 7, 2013

Autobiography of Jacques-Louis David

David refers to himself in both the first and the third person in this unfinished autobiographical sketch.
From the tenderest age David showed a passion for drawing; only drawing appealed to him. He learned the subjects fitting to his age only in the hope that one of his uncles or cousins would make him a drawing. When he was lucky enough to receive one, he immediately set about copying it. The walls, the doors, the floor-everything was covered with his drawings.
His love for painting grew stronger the more he met with resistance from his parents, who did not want him to go into the arts. He asked everyone he could about how to learn drawing more thoroughly.
He heard from one of his friends that anyone could go draw a live model at a place called the Académie de Saint-Luc. He invited me to come see, and the young David could not resist.
He immediately found a spot and set to work copying the model. Used to making only small drawings in pen, he drew a figure smaller than the usual size. Without paying any attention to the drawings of his classmates, he did a second drawing of a totally different size, and more the same way. He kept on drawing for three months with no guide other than his own artistic inclination. Then, since summer had arrived and he had finished his course in rhetoric, he had to choose a profession.
My parents were divided on the subject, but the young man was bound and determined to have a career in the arts and painting. One day when he was out walking with one of his aunts, with whom he was living at the time, he asked her to please listen to him and to share with her husband the conversation I intended to have with her. Teary-eyed, he desperately beseeched her to intercede with her husband, the brother of his mother, to not go against his natural inclination and to speak to him no more of architecture, medicine, or law—he told her his decision was irrevocable, that nothing but painting appealed to him, and that the wealth, esteem, and renown of Boucher, First Painter of the King, was enough to justify his choice, even despite the protests of his aunt, who kept objecting that his plans would be reasonable only if he could rise to the level of his cousin [Boucher]. With a tone of self-assurance and a note of premonition that sweeps away objections, he won over the tender heart of his aunt, who promised to talk to her husband, who was sure to come around when he learned of [David's] resolute determination.
And indeed, the next day, young David's uncle announced to him that they should go consult Boucher about what course to take. Boucher, delighted to see in a young relative an heir to his love of painting, said he was too old to take on a young man as a student and that he did not have students any longer, but that he would recommend David to Vien, professor at the Académie Royale de Peinture, a painter who was quite cold but who would know how to foster the warmth that he perceived in the young David. The uncle and the nephew went to see Vien, and the young David brought the drawings that he had done in collège and the drawings of the live model from the Acedémie de Saint-Luc. "What? You have never had a teacher?" said Vien to David, surprised. David spent a month or so copying drawings and then moved on to drawing from nature. He never had any other rules to follow-he became Art.
...I left for Rome in 1775 as a scholarship recipient of the Académie de France, and I had the good fortune to make the trip with Mr. Vien, my teacher, who was going there to assume the position of director of that academy. Some successes in the poor style of painting of the time, and the indiscreet praise of certain professors who strongly encouraged me not to change my style and not to become like some other painters who resolved to adopt another style, only to return from Rome worse than they were before—this strengthened my resolve to stay with my current style. Alas, those who gave me such poor advice had not really seen Italy, for hardly had I arrived in Parma and seen the works of Correggio that I found my resolve already weakened; in Bologna I began to reflect ruefully, in Florence I was convinced, but in Rome I was ashamed of my ignorance. Giddy from all the beauty that surrounded me, I didn't know what to focus on.
I still had some weaknesses. Pietro da Cortona, alas, I would say, still appealed to me. I even made some sketches after his works, but that only lasted briefly. My visits to museums and galleries opened my eyes, and the divine Column of Trajan totally wiped away my indecision; I hung several of its reliefs on the walls of my studio and spent six months copying them. I then began to understand how to direct my study; I forgot little by little the poor French forms that kept appearing under my hand, and what I drew began to take on an antique character, for antiquities were the principal focus of my study. I varied my work, I sketched after Domenichino, Michelangelo and above all Raphael. Raphael the divine! It is you who raised me to the level of antiquity.
Jacques-Louis David, unfinished autobiography, 1800

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