Protected by Comte de Caylus, he entered at an early age the studio of Natoire, and obtained the grand prix in 1745. He used his time at Rome in applying to the study of nature and the development of his own powers all that he gleaned from the masterpieces around him; but his tendencies were so foreign to the reigning taste that on his return to Paris he owed his admission to the academy for his picture Daedalus and Icarus (Louvre) solely to the indignant protests of François Boucher.
When in 1776, at the height of his established reputation, he became director of the school of France at Rome, he refused to take Jacques-Louis David with him amongst his pupils, stating he was too old to teach a young artist. After his return, five years later, his fortunes were wrecked by the French Revolution; but he undauntedly set to work, and at the age of eighty (1796) carried off the prize in an open government competition. Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledged his merit by making him a senator.