Born into a middle-class Parisian family. In 1757 his mother deserted him and he was subsequently raised by his uncles after his father was killed. All his life he suffered from severe emotional problems.
At 16 he began studying art at the Académie Royale under the rococo painter Joseph-Marie Vien. He won the Prix de Rome in 1774 after having attempted suicide when he lost the contest for three years in a row.
David devised his own individual neoclassical style, drawing subject matter from classical sources, basing both form and style on Roman sculpture. His "Oath of the Horatii" was intended as a proclamation of the neoclassical style. Presenting a moralistic and patriotic theme, the work became the model for noble and heroic historical painting of the following two decades. It greatly increased his popularity and gave him the right to take on his own students.
During this time he had produced deeds both positive and negative: On the positive side he proposed the establishment of an inventory of all national treasures, making him one of the founders of France's museums and played an active role in the organization overseeing the Louvre, in Paris.
He was appointed to the Committee of General Security in 1793. This empowered him to condemn nearly 300 arrested individuals to be guillotined. After the end of the Revolution he was imprisoned because of his actions during it. His students demanded his release, and he was freed on December 28, 1794.
Towards the end of 1797 he met Napoleon Bonaparte and from 1799 to 1815 he was Napoleon's painter, chronicling his life in such massive oeuvres as "The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine" which now hangs in the Louvre. One of his most famous pupils, also a favorite of Napoleon and Josephine, was Francois Gerard (1770 - 1837). After Napoleon's downfall in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, David was exiled to Brussels, Belgium, where he returned to Greek and Roman mythological subjects.
David, throughout his career, was also a prolific portraitist. Smaller and more intimately human than his larger works, portraits such as "Madame Récamier" show great technical mastery and human insight. Many critics consider them his best work since they are free of the propensity to moralisation and overwhelming obeisance to style of his neoclassical works.