French neo-classical painter, Jacques-Louis David (daveed) was born on August 30, 1748. He was the most influential painter of his day. It is his paintings that shape our view of life in Napoleon’s Empire. After the death of his parents, he was raised by wealthy relatives who wanted him to be an architect like them. His only interest was drawing and painting and he prevailed upon them to enroll him in the Académie Royale. He was passed over for the Prix de Rome, a scholarship to study in Rome, five times and finally launched a hunger strike in protest. When he finally won in 1774, he earned the reputation as difficult but brilliant painter. David was disfigured on the left side of his face by a dueling wound coupled with a tumor that made speaking difficult for him.
Despite his disfigurements and difficult personality, he managed to ride the wave from a monarchy, to the Revolution, and then an Empire and win commissions that supported the political views of each regime. He wasn’t just a brush for hire; David was a Jacobin and voted for the execution of Louis XVI. One of his most powerful paintings is the Death of Marat (1793), the Revolutionary journalist. David narrowly escaped being guillotined along with his friend Robespierre. He was later declared the official court painter by Napoleon and immortalized the coronation. When Louis XVIII came to the throne, he offered David amnesty, which he refused, preferring self-exile in Belgium where he died on December 29, 1825.
Today’s expression, être moche comme un pou (etruh mosh come uhn poo), literally means to be as ugly as a louse, or very ugly. Poor David was known as “David the Tumor.” He made everyone look great, including himself in his self-portrait, above, when he, himself was so ugly.