The 1870 war and France's defeat left French society feeling humiliated and longing for revenge. This state of mind made David appear to be the promise of a France that would one day, despite its weakness, slay the Prussian Goliath, like the young Israeli shepherd who, armed only with a sling, brought down the enemy giant. So the sculpture was an instant success: the plaster model executed in Rome, where the young artist was finishing his training, earned him the Legion of Honour, and a bronze version was commissioned by the State in 1872 and put in the Musee du Luxembourg – the Musee des Artistes Vivants – in 1874.
It was soon one of the commonest images in illustrated magazines and was so popular that a miniature version, in six different sizes, was cast by Barbedienne.
At the late 1870s, Antonin Mercié incarnated the young generation of French sculptors who, without breaking away from the traditional canons, wanted to make their figures more vibrant. He sought to combine the skilled composition and lively modelling seen in the great models of the Florentine Renaissance: hence the sweeping curves of the arm extended by the movement of the sword, the bent knee, and the graceful movement of this David.
A spectator walking round it can appreciate the way the planes gradually modulate the space. Mercié carved himself an original path between modern classicism and explicit realism.