Art and the French Revolution by author Joseph J. O’Donnell, Sr.

Self-Portrait Jacques Louis-David

Jacques Louis-David

Art has done much to describe the history of mankind, both as a culture and ultimately a species. Early art was an expression of man’s surroundings, and told much about our early stages of development. It was also a subliminal way to change our thoughts.

One of the great examples of this was the work of French artist Jacques Louis-David. His paintings and caricatures of the French revolutionary period, and the times that followed, was displayed to uphold the French Revolution and bolster the Republic that came after. In fact the Revolution that followed in the wake of the ‘Great Enlightenment’, also known as ‘The Age of Reason, that swept Europe and America some years before, changed the very basis of Western Civilization.

His artwork was displayed to the average man in France to gain popular opinion for the Revolution. His work The Death of Socrates was made to show that Socrates, who was about to sip a cup of hemlock, would rather die an honorable death as opposed to being subjected to a dishonorable life of living under the rule of the upper classes, represented by the shackles left under his bed.

The Death of Marat

The Death of Marat

His portrait Death of Marat was an attempt by the artist to replace portraits of the Saints with those of revolutionaries. No greater example of this was done than this particular painting. At the height of the Revolution writer Jean Marat, a close friend of the artist, was murdered by his mistress, Charlotte Corday. His portrait of his murdered friend was a great example of how the artist attempted to supplant these images in the minds of his countrymen.

Two works of art, one a caricature and the other a painting, was used to uphold the image of the Third Estate, the lower house of the French ruling class. These both were of The Tennis Court Oath which chartered the beginnings of the French Revolution and those who supported it. One could say that this artwork became the foundation of political cartoons, and the force that they possessed from that point forward. Arguments would suggest that political art is as old as mankind, but those of the French Revolution has created the Western Civilization that is known today.

Following the Revolution Napoleon Bonaparte took power, and David’s art was still held in prominence. Two works of his Portrait of Napoleon in Imperial Garb and Napoleon Crossing the Alps shows the subject of the paintings as represented by the artist’s work. Napoleon is shown in his rise to power from the lowest ranks of French society. The portrayal of the subject gave pride to the populace, even though Napoleon saw himself as the supreme ruler of a country that had just relieved themselves of a dominant society and king.

My pic    Napoleon’s rise and fall would be followed by several more revolutions in France, but this period of the county’s history would develop into what that country is today. Art, therefore, has its place in shaping history.


*Pictures from the Jacques Louis-David Organization

*History of The Death of Marat from Smart History Khan Academy Organization


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