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The French Revolution

Art was a powerful form of political propaganda in the French Revolution. Early in the
revolution, it spoke in support of the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and
fraternity; as the revolution spread across Europe, it also spoke against the abuses of the
Napoleonic regimes.

Background Information

The French Revolution was a natural outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution and the
Enlightenment. What characterized these movements was the belief that the universe was
a rational, and mathematically ordered place, whose inner workings were accessible to
the human mind. Newton's Principia Mathematica demonstrated the principle of
gravitation and the laws of mation, and further argued that the entire universe was united
in its adherance to these basic laws of nature. Alexander Pop wrote that "Nature and
nature's laws lay hidden in the night, and God said 'let Newton be' and all was light."
Many believed that Newton's mathematical brilliance had allowed humans to see into the
very mind of God.

In the eighteenth century, the philosophes of the Enlightenment applied Newtonian


mechanics to political philosophy. Newton described the mathematical laws of the
universe; the philosophes described the laws of nature as they applied to human living in
communities. John Locke's Second Treatise on Government discussed the natural,
inalienable rights of men: the right of life, liberty, and property; Thomas Jefferson argued
the same position in the Declaration of Independence when he stated that all men are
created equal, and have the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The French
reiterated these points in their Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, where again
it was argued that men are born equal and have the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and
freedom from oppression.

These ideals ignited revolution in France, a country ruled by an absolute monarchy for
centuries. In France under Louis XIV, there was no liberty, no representation, no freedom
of speech, and no rights to due process. People were often picked up off the street for
speaking against the monarchy, and detained for months or years in the Bastille in Paris.
Louis XIV controlled the Parliaments, the courts, and every aspect of France. Peasants
suffered from a shortage of bread, France was in such debt that fully 1/2 of its revenue
went to pay just the interest on its debt, and those who could most afford to help France
in its hour of need, the nobles, refused to pay even the taxes they were required to pay.

The ideas of Locke, Jefferson, and other thinkers of the Enlightenment inspired the
French to seek a more representative form of government, and so began the French
Revolution in 1789.
The revolution began on an idealistic note with the convening of the Estates General, and
disappointed many in its early days for its failure to fully implement the ideals of the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Citizens were distinguished from one
another on the basis of property: there were active citizens and passive citizens, and
women were lost in the shuffle. Early idealists such as Marat were disappointed in the
intial reforms, and remarked when the constitution was created in the wake of the
Declaration that "the worst has happened." France had not achieved the radical
democracy Marat and others, such as Robespierre, had wanted.

In 1793-1794, France was under attack from many at home who believed the revolution
had actually gone too far, rather than not far enough. European monarchies, threatened by
the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, were at war with the French. Robespierre
instituted a "reign of terror" in which all suspected of being counter-revolutionaries were
sent to the guillotine.

After the reign of terror, there was a conservative reaction, the Thermidorian Reaction.
Many wanted a restoral of the Bourbon monarchy. Early revolutionaries, such as the
Abbe Sieyes, called for the restoral of order from above. In the midst of such chaos,
Napoleon Bonaparte began his rise to power.

Revolutionary Art

Napoleon became wildly popular as a supporter of revolutionary ideals. He was regarded


as one who could carry the banner of the revolution throughout Europe, liberating those
under absolutism. He led a campaigns in Africa, and became a hero when he defeated the
enemies of the revolution at Austerlitz.

In the art of Jacques Louis David, we can see Napoleon portrayed as the hero of the
revolution. In his portrait of the youthful Napoleon is portrayed as ruggedly handsome,.
He looks slightly upward, a symbol of his quest for truth and for liberty.

Gros's painting of Napoleon is also very idealistic with windswept hair. In early portraits
he is never portrayed as static; everything is in motion. Napoleon's arm is upraised,
symbolizing his quest for Truth and for Liberty.

David's Napoleon at St. Bernard (Napoleon on a Horse) is another famous image of


Napoleon as revolutionary hero. Napoleon sits majestically on a horse reared up, and
points upwards toward heaven. The image is not a static one; the horse is reared up,
Napoleon's clothing is being blown by the wind but is also pointing upwards, and his
hore is posed on the brink of a chasm. So too Europe was on the brink: it was threatened
by a war of the absolutist monarchs against the French, who were in search of liberty.
Although Napoleon and the French were besieged by enemies, they nevertheless came
out victorious. This painting is a powerful image of Napoleon as crusading hero.

Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Erioca, also captures the heroic spirit. The form is
explosive; this was one of the longest, most complex, and expansive symphonies written
to date. The development is extraordinarily complex and long; the coda is equally long.
The expansive nature of the symphony symbolizes the expansion of the revolutionary
ideals. The symphony was dedicated to Napoleon, whose early career Beethoven
admired. It captures the heroic spirit in humanity, as well as the heroic spirit of
Beethoven himself, who was going deaf at this point in his life. When Beethoven later
learned that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, he tore up the dedication page.

The early triumph of revolutionary ideals against the autocratic monarchies is symbolized
by Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Here Liberty marches triumphant over the
bodies of those who opposed her progress, and she carries the banner of the French
Revolution. The banner is pointing upwards to heaven, and is blowing in the wind. The
image is of liberty triumphant.

Art also symbolized the tragic side of the revolution. During 1793-1794, Robespierre's
Reign of Terror fought to preserve his ideal of the Republic of Virtue. In his zeal to
preserve libery, Robespierre sacrificed the liberties of those whom he thought opposed
the revolution. David's painting of the Death of Marat portrayed the radical
revolutiuonary Marat after he had been assassinated in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.
Marat had advocated radical democracy, and was then fighting against counter-
revolutionaries by supporting the activities of Robespierre's Committee on Public Safety.
Thousands were sent to the guillotine on very slim or non-existent evidence. Marat was
assasinated by the sister of a victim of the Terror.

David portrays Marat's assassination as a tragedy, and the figure is depicted in the same
manner as earlier artists portrayed religious subjects. The table in the foreground is
reminiscent of a tombstone marker. It is stark, without anything else in the scene. Marat is
draped in what looks very much like a shroud and has a turban. He is almost reminiscent
of the Christ having been wrapped for burial. With him, David suggests, the pure ideals
of the revolution have also died.

In his Death of Socrates, Marat also points to the ideal of liberty and the quest for Truth,
and suggests again that one must be ever vigilant, as liberty can be lost. Socrates
symbolizes the rational mind, and all that was good about ancient Greece. He was given
the choice between drinking hemlock or ceasing to teach his philosophy, which criticized
traditional religious beliefs. He chose to drink hemlock. Twelve disciples surround him,
the same number of disciples as Christ had, who was also persecuted for speaking the
Truth. Socrates symbolizes the search for freedom and intellectual liberty, and the threat
that that liberty will be taken away by a repressive state.

Although Napoleon was seen as an early champion of the revolution, in 1804 he declared
himself emperor of France. David's portaits of Napoleon as emperor show a much
different Napoleon, one no longer in motion, standing rigidly with his hand in his shirt in
an imperial pose.

David's painting of the coronation of Napoleon similarly shows a Napoleon who is no


longer the champion of liberty, but the personification of tyrrany. He is dressed in lavish
regalia, and wears a laruel leaf crown, associated with Roman emperors not known for
their democratic rule. Napoleon had taken the crown from the pope's hands to place on
his own head, and is here getting ready to place the crown on Josephine's head. Gone is
the crusading hero of the 1790's and here again is another monarch. Napoleon enacted the
Napoleonic Codes throughout Europe, which favored the fathers of families, employers
over workers, and forbade trade with Britain. The Codes were seen as repressive, and he
also instituted several of his own relatives as rulers of countries conquered in the name of
the revolution. Although David was himself a supporter of Napoleon, elements of this
painting depict aspects of Napoleon that his enemies came to hate. Click here for a detail
of the painting.

Goya's The Third of May, 1808 depicts the horors of war and the corruption of the early
ideals of the French. The victim is covered in light, a symbol of Truth, Widsom, and
purity. He has a face, as do those around him. On the other hand, the rest of the scene is
in darkness. The French are dehumanized; only their backs are visible, and they have no
faces. Here, the French are seen as torturers, abusers who have usurped the liberty of the
Spanish people.

Napoleon was ultimately defeated at Waterloo in 1814 and exiled to St. Helena. He died
of stomach cancer in 1821 and in disgrace. Later in the nineteenth century, as
revolutionary activity continued to unfold in the revolutuons of 1848 and beyond,
Napoleon was re-evaluated by the French and his body was brought back to Paris. It was
entombed in the military academy. The tomb is red porphyry, and a magnificent structure.
You look down at Napoleon's tomb from a point high above, and it is surrounded by
statues, many of which are the personifications of the ideals of liberty, fraternity, and
equality. It is a powerful example of art as propaganda, and the last statement on
Napoleon.