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The Impact Of Graphic Art On The

French Revolution Essay, Research Paper

The Impact of Graphic Art on the French Revolution

Art has allways been an important part of history. Sometimes it is even able to change or influence

history by acting upon public opinion. Many artists of all ages are known for their political

involvement. Although it is argued that the most important reason for the outbreak of the French

Revolution was the political and economical instability of France during this period, there is place

for an agrument that art also had influence in starting the Revolution.

One of the most famous artists of the French Revolution was Jaques-Louis David. In the early

years of the Revolution, David was a member of the extremist Jacobin group led by Robespierre,

and he became an energetic example of the politically committed artist. He was elected to the

National Convention in 1792, in time to vote for the execution of Louis XVI. By 1793, as a

member of the art commission, he was virtually the art dictator of France and was nicknamed “the

Robespierre of the brush.”

Not all of the people in France at the time of the Revolution could read, and not even those who

could read necessarily understood the writings of Voltaire or Rousseau. However, many more

people could understand visual art. Although the French Revolution is usually treated as a

revolution of the poor, it is also important to take into consideration that it was not started by the

peasantry, but by the nobility and wealthy businessmen of the Third Estate. These were the people

who had the time and money to attend theater and patronize artists. These were the people that

came to the galleries to view David’s works.

His works were of a new style, never seen before. The art of the French Revolution represented a

sharp break with the art of the early part of the eighteenth century, when rococo reigned. Rococo

art glorified the aristocracy, maybe because it coincided with the peak of absolutist monarchy. The

“common people” were nowhere to be seen in rococo paintings. However, influenced by the ideas

of the Enlightenment, a few artists made an abrupt change. Old ideas of republicanism and

democracy were being resurrected among these new artists, known as the neoclassicists. This era

of art was to be known as the neoclassical era due to its heavy reliance on classical Greek and

republican Roman themes. Oath of the Horatii (1784), Death of Marat (1793), Junius Brutus

(1789), and Death of Socrates (1787), all prominent historical pieces by David, were painted in

the middle 1780’s.

The neoclassical era was an important instigator of the French Revolution; not because it depicted ancient scenes, but because of the ideas contained in those paintings. The best known canvases painted by the master Jacques-Louis David portrayed graphically two principles vital to a republican revolution: condemnation of monarchical rule and a willingness to sacrifice oneself or others (whether they want to die or not) for a greater cause. The first Revolutionary principle found in David’s art was a condemnation of monarchical rule. This idea is best expressed in Oath of the Horatii and Junius Brutus. Both of these paintings are derived from the legends surrounding the birth of the Roman Republic.The message shared by them is clear: the monarchy is evil, the republic that replaced it was good. These paintings were completed in the 1780’s, a few years before the Revolution. Almost all of David’s neoclassical art was done before the Revolution. These ideas had time to develop in people’s minds before the Revolution itself erupted in 1789.

The greatest single piece of evidence that points to the importance of

art in provoking the Revolution is the importance placed on David by

revolutionary leaders. David was the artist selected to record the

moment of the Tennis Court Oath, which was when the National

Assembly was constituted. This moment was seen by most people as the

moment that the Revolution began and therefore should be

immortalized. David later became a member of the National

Convention, France’s new representative body, and was appointed to

the Committee for Public Safety, which was responsible for

suppressing political dissent during the Reign of Terror. In this

position, David signed the death warrants of hundreds of people,

including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. David’s only credentials

were his works of art. He had no experience in government, business,

or any related field. Clearly, Revolutionary leaders such as Robespierre

(who was very close to David) felt David’s art was an important

enough contribution to include him in the government. It was his work

that re-established David’s fortunes and brought him to the attention of

Napoleon, who appointed him his official painter. David became an

ardent supporter of Napoleon and retained under him the dominant

social and artistic position which he had previously held. In the

early1800’s he painted a series of pictures glorifying the exploits of the

Emperor, among them one of the most famous portraits of Napoleon:

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800)

David’s art of the early and middle 1780’s provided the necessary

mental preparation needed for the French Revolution to take place. He

showed the ordinary person the importance of individuality and the

role a single man may play in history. The writings of the

Enlightenment had been in existence for forty years, but it was not

until an artist graphically depicted the ideals necessary for revolution to

take place that the french commoners realised that they are just as

important as the emperors and saints. This new idea about the ordinary

people’s place in the world and its graphic depiction by David were one

of the crucial points in the preparation of France for a revolution.


“French Revolution” Britannica Online.

“David, Jacques-Louis” Britannica Online.

Web Museum, Paris – Jaques-Louis David

CGFA – Jaques-Louis David