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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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There is a large selection of drawings left from the career of Jacques-Louis David, far more than any of the related French artists who were around at the same time. Although his drawings have never received the same level of attention as his paintings, David is certainly regarded as a highly skilled draughtsman.

Jacques Louis David left behind a number of sketchbooks which contain a large array of sketches in a variety of states of completion. Some derive from his early days as a student where he would travel around the city of Rome, endlessly and obsessively noting down each and every historical item that grabbed his attention. Being before the days of modern media, it was felt necessary to have one's own copy of these different things, and taking quick photographs was also not an option. By producing handmade sketches, he could also later translate some of these into elements of larger compositions, normally paintings.

Even just during this period of study, David would produce over one thousand drawings of various Roman-related items including buildings, clothing and more detailed scenes. These remained by his side throughout his lifetime, and would refer to them from time to time for ideas and technical information about elements of new artworks. In order to allow these original drawings to best serve this purpose, he chose to re-order them as seperate sleeves so that he could find specific topics grouped together, rather than their initial ordering that would have been purely chronological.

In total, 12 sketchbooks have been uncovered from the career of Neoclassical artist, Jacques Louis David. First and foremost, he was a history painter and in order to produce convincing and technically accurate depictions of items from centuries ago he would need to practice tirelessly, in both oils and also the fundamental drawings skills that unpinned everything. David was alive during a time of great political upheaval across the French kingdom. He became increasing embroiled in these turbulent times and was eventually arrested after falling on the wrong side of power. He would eventually prevail and became the official voice on art across the country, almost to the point of becoming dictatorial. His classical artist style would become the only accepted method for a number of years.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a good collection of David drawings, many of which were gifted by Robert Lehman in 1975. They are mainly study pieces for complex paintings, with several produced for each one. Black chalk and brown ink were the most frequent tools used to put them together and they contain a variety of levels of detail from one to the next. Art historians have gained a huge amount of knowledge around this artist’s working practises thanks to these sketchbooks. To see his forms built up from nothing, then tweaked and amended over time has allowed us to appreciate the various stages of work that he put into each painting.

Jacques Louis David Drawings in Detail