The French Revolution brings a defined set of associations to one’s mind: the exemplary decadent aristocracy, the guillotine that became synonymous with the terrifying and efficient executions that engulfed France, and, finally, the rise of Napoleon. The insurgency then became a spooky tale perpetuated by the proponents of the old regime who clung to their power and privilege. With the blood of the revolution still fresh in the minds of many, they could always justify their reactionary views. In the end, the French Revolution meant the world in both politics and culture. Let’s take a look at 5 paintings that best capture the notion of the French Revolution in art.
The Iconic French Revolution
While there are other equally earth-shattering resurrections and rebellions that shook the world, it is the French Revolution that has truly become a household name. Why is it so iconic? Europe alone saw its fair share of violent uprisings and power shifts centuries before the French Revolution. Nonetheless, this uprising became a gloomy template for other Revolutions to come due to the peculiar combination of extremes that it embodied.
The French Revolution had several causes. Extravagant spending of the royal court, poor harvests, and economic stagnation affected the state more than one could imagine. But perhaps, the primary reason that drove people into the streets and eventually destroyed the monarchy was the dire need for reforms that never came. Finally, on May 5, 1789, King Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General, an Assembly representing the clergy, nobility, and middle class. All could introduce their grievances to the king.
However, the middle class had significantly increased in number by that time and comprised most of the French population. They, therefore, had no equal representation and no ability to block the veto of the nobles. While fiscal and judicial reforms were the desire of all the three estates, giving up power never entered the minds of the privileged nobility. Unable to come to terms with the clergy and nobility, the Third Estate met alone, adopting the name of a National Assembly and taking the so-called Tennis-Court Oath. After vowing not to disperse before introducing the much-needed constitutional reform, the National Assembly held strong and forced the king to absorb them into the Estates-General.
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The king’s gesture, however, did little to quell the people in the streets who were already on the verge of snapping. On July 14, an armed group of insurgents stormed the legendary Bastille prison that was, by that time, mostly empty. The revolutionary fever spread through the country, turning a large part of the population against the elites. Soon enough, riots forced the Assembly to adopt the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and Citizen that was heavily inspired by the ideas of the French Enlightened Philosophers like Rousseau and Diderot. It was the first time such notions as equality, freedom of speech, and popular sovereignty had made their way into an official European legislative document. However, the changing political landscape could not accommodate the clergy, the conservatives, the nobles, and the various battling fractions that opposed each other. Moreover, constitutional Monarchy did not satisfy radical revolutionaries like Robespierre and Danton, who wanted to bring the Ancient Regime down and dance on its bones.
Revolutionary Art and Revolutionary Blood
What followed was a decade of bloodshed and political experimentation that coincided with France declaring war on its counter-revolutionary neighbors. Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were both executed for high treason. The radical Jacobin faction of the revolutionaries embarked on a path of destruction, building a new world with a new calendar and a new set of ever-fluctuating values. The so-called Reign of Terror ended in Robespierre’s death and the rise of the infamous five-member Directory. It was then that a young and successful general named Napoleon Bonaparte came into prominence, first abolishing the unpopular and ineffective Directory and then declaring himself France’s first consul.
The art of the French Revolution is predictably as iconic as the great upheaval itself. However, this revolutionary art is quite specific. The French Revolution is, above all else, a story about the limits of popular patience. It may have ultimately failed, as it led to the rise of an Emperor, but it was an experiment with creating a new order. The novelty of a new regime attracted artists above all else, and they told their stories in paintings.
1. The Death Of Marat, by Jaques-Louis David, 1793
In his widely circulated 1793 essay Considérations sur la nature de la Révolution de France, Jacques Mallet du Pan coined what came known to be the most famous phrase about revolutionary fever: “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”
The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David is one such example. In a covered bathtub against a dull background, the Jacobin leader lies in blood with his hand still holding a piece of unfinished writing. This gruesome scene became one of David’s most iconic works. Styling Marat as a Christian martyr, David borrows from the established tradition of commemoration to depict a new saint of a new political order. Yet, while few people’s hands were as drenched in blood as Marat’s, it was not his political background that fascinated David as much as the impact of his actions.
While the French Revolutionaries did indeed form a large part of Jacques-Louis David’s audience, the painting acquired a number of fans among prominent contemporaries who admired the idealized portrait of Marat. With its high contrasts, the work bears notable influence from Caravaggio. However, this revolutionary art tells a story that is somewhere between myth and reality. Marat, who worked in his bath to relieve the symptoms of his skin condition, was killed by Charlotte Corday, one of Marat’s political enemies. Yet, after assassinating Marat, Corday did not flee. Instead, she left the scene, possibly, exactly how we see it in David’s Death of Marat.
2. Liberty Leading The People, by Eugène Delacroix, 1830
Eugène Delacroix painted revolutions and leaders. He celebrated turbulence and change like many Romantic artists of his age. However, his Liberty Leading the People remains an iconic work of revolutionary art that addresses the destiny of his nation. By 1830, the French Revolution was long finished. In that case, what was the point of this painting, and how does it relate to the Great Revolution? Did Delacroix idealize the event that had cost so many lives?
Partially, he did. His Liberty Leading the People, thus, tells not about sacrifice but the birth of nationalism. In Eugene Weber’s book Peasants into Frenchmen, the author ponders on the same question that permeates Eugène Delacroix’s painting: in a country where most peasants were uninvolved in the political struggles of the elites, how could a nation be born? In Delacroix’s view, it was a shared goal and blood spilled that created a nation: personified by a bare-breasted woman holding a French flag on the barricades.
While Delacroix completed the painting in 1830 following a different French revolution, the painter addressed several turbulent decades of the long French history in one work. The Uprising of 1830 predated the June Rebellion of 1832 that once again brought people to the forefront, highlighting the same theme of violent change and the idea of unity and sacrifice. Thus, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is a historical painting and a reflection of contemporary events, binding together the very nature of the French revolution(s) – the Romantic vigor and symbolism as well as the changing political leaders, who perished at the hand of their allies, advisors, or outraged crowds.
3. The Storming Of The Bastille, by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, 1789
Every revolution has an iconic event that remains in popular memory for the centuries to come. For the French Revolution, this event would undoubtedly be the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789. What distinguishes that day has little to do with military achievements or strategic planning. Instead, the fall of the Bastille bore a symbolic meaning, associated with oppression and the Ancient Regime. The Bastille had earned its macabre reputation long before the insurgents came to storm it.
As a successful landscape artist, Lallemand could not ignore the turbulence of his time. He was a witness and survivor of the Revolution and viewed it differently than David or Delacroix. Thus, his Storming of the Bastille is the work of a chronicler and retrospection of an artist rather than an attempt to connect the past and the present.
What makes this revolutionary art unique is not its grandeur but rather its lack thereof. The Storming of the Bastille represents confused, injured figures partaking in a battle that turns into chaos, drowning in cannon fire. None of the figures has a detailed face; therefore, none can be called the protagonist, and too many are lost in action. Revolutions may lead to greatness, but the struggle is rarely as polished or as glamorous as depicted by Delacroix. Thus, Lallemand’s painting reflects the messy reality rather than the polished mythology. The grand event that would be commemorated for centuries to come could indeed have looked like clandestine violence before artists and historians decided otherwise.
4. Marie-Antoinette Being Taken To Her Execution, by William Hamilton, 1794
An outsider’s view can offer yet another perspective of the French Revolution. As a famous British artist, William Hamilton found the French Revolution an endless source of fear and fascination. But what shocked him most was the demise of the extravagant and powerful queen Marie-Antoinette, who followed her executed husband after almost a year of trials.
In the painting, revolutionary soldiers escort the former queen to her execution while holding back an angry crown outraged by her previous decadent lifestyle. The white-clad queen stands against the background of darkly dressed men and women, her face both detached and sorrowful.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this painting lies in the contrast between the rage of the crowd and Marie-Antoinette’s saddened demeanor. Despite this contrast, Marie Antoinette does not appear a saint in Hamilton’s painting, and her jailers and soldiers do not necessarily represent the forces of irredeemable evil. In a way, Hamilton’s painting is a curious illustration of the forces of the revolution.
5. Napoleon In Egypt, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867-68
The would-be Emperor dressed as a revolutionary general represents yet another contradiction of the revolution. The Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts Napoleon in front of the Mamluk Tombs outside Cairo during his 1798 Egypt expedition. Napoleon in Egypt is only one of several Gérôme paintings depicting the future Emperor during his campaigns. This portrait of the contemplative young general before his downfall which would change the course of history remains one of the few works that speaks about the French Revolution in hindsight.
The popular revolt that set out to destroy the monarchy also brought forward the bold and talented Napoleon Bonaparte. Although he had previously sworn to scorn the monarchy, Napoleon would rise to become the Emperor of France, trumping Europe under his heel. The irony of this portrait was not lost to Gérôme, who produced the painting following the tastes of Napoleon III, the Great Emperor’s eccentric nephew and Gérôme’s patron.
The French Revolution: A Legacy of Contradictions
Few events shook the world and left as grand a legacy behind as the French Revolution. Inspired by the thinkers of the Enlightenment and driven forward by idealists who strove for equality and renewal, the Revolution exposed both the brilliance and the ugliness of social upheaval that found its way into art. Moreover, the French Revolution created heroes and villains who often changed places depending on how the Revolution swayed. It also inspired generations of artists who attempted to answer one question with their art: what was it about the French Revolution that made it so iconic?
The French Revolution brought about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most famous Emperors in the history of the world. It brutally destroyed the Ancient Regime. It led to a series of other revolutions that would eventually destabilize the European monarchies. It also led to an unprecedented era of political experimentation that was far from one-sided or negative. It also drenched France in blood and bred the rise of conservative thinking in Europe. Despite all these contradictions, the French Revolution undoubtedly caused one thing – the creation of great revolutionary art.