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The French Revolution has had a strong impact on society as a whole, with many events occurring during the era shaping the thinking of many and even triggering other rebellions. The revolution was one of the first occurrences to demonstrate the power of propaganda on the people and to encourage individuals to use it as a tool to emphasize their points-of-view. The French revolutionaries had developed a complex system of propaganda that they used with the purpose of shaping how the masses saw the revolution as a whole. These people considered a wide range of concepts that could amplify the feelings the masses would experience when becoming acquainted with propaganda techniques they used.
Art was one of the primary means of propaganda used during the French Revolution, as revolutionaries discovered how diverse artworks could instill nationalistic thoughts into people seeing them and could thus influence these people to get actively involved in the rebellion. Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat” is one of the most renowned pictures associated with the French Revolution. The painting used politics and deep feelings as a tool to get people to acknowledge the importance of the revolution.
Another painting created by the artist, “The Oath of the Tennis Court,” was similarly influential when considering the topics it addressed. The painting was intended to have people realize that they were responsible for the well-being of France, with the tennis court that the crowd gathered in standing as a reference to how simple people could do anything they wanted as long as they were determined to do it.
Jacques-Louis David was largely an opportunist when it came to his political preferences. “While Louis XVI was in power, David initially concealed his enough to earn royal commissions (Oath of the Horatii and Brutus). After 1789, he became a leader in the revolutionary regime, initiating reorganization of the Academie Royale and supervising the production of pageants and visual propaganda for the government.” (Facos 2011, p. 56) This makes it possible for someone to comprehend exactly how David perceived art. He was well-acquainted with the power an artist can have and thus focused on using this power as a means to achieve his goals.
The start of the French Revolution drew in large crowds and among those people were numerous artists. Jacques-Louis David joined the ranks of the Jacobins — a group that had extremist beliefs and were mainly responsible for making the revolution happen. “He accepted the role of de facto minister of propaganda, organizing political pageants and ceremonies requiring floats, costumes, and structural props.” (Kleiner 2012) David considered that art could make it possible for people to see things from the artist’s viewpoint. From his perspective, paintings that expressed feelings like drama could work as patriotic ideas and as gathering calls for people to come together and play a more active role in the revolution.
David had long believed that art could educate individuals and attempted to use stories from antiquity in his paintings with the purpose of making individuals seeing them better acquainted with a series of ideas. As the French Revolution began and started to gain popularity, he realized that he had the power to join it by using his art to inspire individuals. “The Death of Marat” was painted in 1793 and it was intended to do much more than to simply have people seeing it more familiarized with a historical event — David wanted it to inspire individuals to the point where they could see Marat’s murder as the murder of hope and they would thus feel obliged to accompany revolutionaries in order to fight for hope.
The fact that Marat was David’s friend obviously contributed to the painter wanting to send an intense message through the artwork. The painting itself evokes a type of cold suffering that inspires feelings like mercy, anger, and determination in individuals seeing it. People living during the revolution must have been especially touched as a result of seeing the painting, considering that Marat was a revolutionary and a remarkable writer who addressed the revolution as a concept that could liberate the people of France and that could change the country for the better. Even the reason why Marat was in the bathtub is connected to the revolution, as “he was trying to cure the skin disease he had contracted during his days of hiding in the sewers of Paris.” (Lord & Lord 2010, p. 101)
David did not want to leave anything out when it came to elements in the painting — he put special emphasize on things that he knew would enrage individuals seeing it. Elements like the knife used to stab the writer, his wound, and blood spilt from his lifeless body are all highlighted. This makes it possible for viewers to realize that Marat died for a purpose, taking into account that he was killed because he did not hesitate to act against the system through his writings. “David presented the scene with directness and clarity. The cold neutral space above Marat’s figure slumped in the tub produces a chilling oppressiveness.” (Kleiner 2012)
The painting shows the revolutionary leader’s murder as a symbol of patriotism and practically turns him into an icon. In addition to reflecting the way that David felt with regard to Marat, the picture is meant to shape people’s understanding of the protagonist — they are expected to be enraged concerning his death and to take up arms against the system in order to put an end to such crimes.
David’s clever depiction of Marat’s death goes further than to simply represent a person’s demise. It also addresses the perpetrator and makes her seem like a figure that people should associate with everything that was wrong about France at the time. “Contemporaries alternately described Corday as a monster and a villain, a maiden and a heroine, depending on their political persuasion.” (Nielsen 2013, p. 7) David’s work functioned as a tool of political persuasion by shaping people’s understanding of the event. Although the artist chose not to portray the killer in the painting, the elements that are actually present in it are enough to have people gain a more complex understanding of what happened and who is responsible for the crime. Moreover, while most people must have been familiar with the fact that Corday killed Marat, the perpetrator in this case can also be considered to be the system as a whole. The ideas that influenced Corday to perform the crime are the ideas the revolution was fighting against.
David’s “The Oath of the Tennis Court” further emphasizes the significance that particular elements can have in a painting. Individuals familiar with the historic event are probably aware that several characters in the picture were not actually present at the location when the event took place. Dom Gerle, for example, is a monk shown in the painting administering the oath alongside of a priest and a Protestant. “He was given a starring role by David in his famous picture of the Tennis Court Oath which led to the formation of the National Assembly in June 1789.” (Beales 2003, p. 246) The painting as a whole is an imaginative reconstruction and it puts across David’s interest in creating works of art that needed to impress people, regardless of the fact that they were not one hundred percent truthful.
The reason why David chose to portray Dom Gerle in the painting was that many of the individuals who took part in the Tennis Court Oath became unpopular shortly after the event took place. Introducing them into the picture would not have achieved the same result as introducing Dom Gerle, a person who was popular among revolutionaries for most of the 1790s. “Monks were seen as more favorable to the Revolution than seculars, and it is clear that the early actions of the Assembly commanded broad support within the male monasteries, though not in the nunneries.” (Beales 2003, p. 246)
The political environment in France during the 1790s was constantly changing and it was thus problematic for David to use individuals that were unlikely to stay in power for a longer period of time. The painting was not only intended to change people’s understanding of the political system and of the oath, as it was meant to address a series of topics. The fact that the painter wanted to encourage the public to play an active role in paying for the painting related to the idea of art in general. Most artists during the time earned money as a consequence of patronage and thus had to cooperate with wealthy individuals who could support the expenses of creating artwork. In contrast, David considered that he could use the tennis court oath painting as a tool to get people to finance art. “David had hoped to pay for the painting by public subscription; a gift from the French people to the state.” (Facos 2011, p. 56)
David’s painting reinforces the idea that the gathering at the tennis court was shaped by the solidarity existing between individuals present there. The painter had long been interested in revolutionary thoughts and had set the basis for the revolution through many ideas and paintings he produced in the previous decade. “Heroically framed legislators take their oath with gestures and expressions as incisive as David’s contour, it is as if they had been physically remade in accord with their mission of national regeneration.” (Ribner 1993, p. 2) Many faces in the crowd shine perfectly, this probably being David’s attempt to portray individuals like Robespierre and Mirabeau as being honest and as being the best candidates for a France that actually cares about its people.
To a certain degree, David’s painting can be understood as a tool that the painter used with the purpose of representing contemporary events. His work functioned similar to a newspaper, only that it presented much more intense scenes. This technique influenced people to understand things from David’s point-of-view and to consider that it would be in their best interest to join the revolution. The painter delivered news through his paintings and his news were intriguing because they provided a one-sided version of events. When considering the saying “history is written by the victors,” it would be safe to say that David hoped that the revolution would eventually be successful and that his paintings would play an important role in fighting for it.
(The Illustrated Story of Art 2013, p. 221)
The fact that people could see an event considered to be unlawful and where ‘simple’ individuals took place was especially impressive at the time. Art no longer aimed at pleasing the upper class, as individuals like David joined the masses and even glorified their achievements. “At the outbreak of the revolution in 1789, the liberal David initiated the epic Oath of the Tennis Court to celebrate the defiance of royal authority.” (Grafton, Most, & Settis 2010, p. 253) The fact that the painting was not completed adds to its significance. It stands as a direct example of the struggle that revolutionaries faced during the period, taking into account that these people needed to invest all of their resources in fighting for liberty.
When taking into account David’s struggle to help the revolution, it would be safe to say that he involved all of his power in the event. The fact that he produced lesser paintings during the 1790s is actually a paradox — it shows how he started to express interest in trying to change the country through politics rather than to use his paintings as a means to fuel a propaganda movement.
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Beales, E. (2003). Prosperity and Plunder: European Catholic Monasteries in the Age of Revolution, 1650-1815. Cambridge University Press.
Grafton, A., Most, G.W., & Settis, S. (2010). The Classical Tradition. Harvard University Press.
Facos, M. (2011). An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Art. Taylor & Francis.
Kleiner, F. (2012). Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History, Volume 2. Cengage Learning.
Lord, B., & Lord, G.D. (2010). Artists, Patrons, and the Public: Why Culture Changes. Rowman Altamira.
Nielsen, W.C. (2013). Women Warriors in Romantic Drama. Rowman & Littlefield.
Ribner, J.P. (1993). Broken Tablets: The Cult of the Law in French Art from David to Delacroix. University of California Press.
Rosenblum, R. (1970). Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art. Princeton University Press.
(2013). The Illustrated Story of Art. Dorling Kindersley Ltd.