Jacques-Louis David and the French Revolution | Essays

The modern democracy is a beloved topic in both national and international media. More often than not, one is referred to the realisation of that particular modern form of state and whether that concept has been used right by our peers. To understand the origins of the values of democracies, we need to go back to the era what is often referred as the beginning of modern democracy: the French Revolution. The French Revolution is a thankful subject voor cultural scientists all over the planet. The last years a variety books have been written on the French Revolution and the symbolism of that period, have been written, each with their own innovative perspective. However, literature is not the only form where we could learn about the French Revolution. Art is another form of expression where we can see the symbolism of the French Revolution. One of the most celebrated artists of that specific era, was the French artist Jacques-Louis David, whose name is known because of his paintings. (Lajer-Burcharth, 1999). David is a very interesting persona in history, no historian would tell you otherwise. Not just for the fact that he is seen as very important painter, but also because he has been one of the most prolific political activist artists during the French Revolution. (Robert, 1989). As one of the so-called forefathers of neoclassicism, his work is depicted as symbolical for the French Revolution. In this article efforts are made to to research David’s political conviction and how his paintings have been influenced by this conviction, in particular the Oath of the Horatii.

Jacques-Louis David (1744-1825) was a supporter of the French Revolution and one of the key figures within the Neoclassical movement, as well as the political faction of the Jacobins. (The Bulfinch Guide to Art History). This came about at the time when David learnt his trade in the school of Joseph-Marie Vien. Vien was an artist who had a neoclassical approach and reaction to the disappearance of the Rococo style. After his 18th birthday, David joins the Academie Royal in Paris as a student. He leaves the French capital after a few years, only to come back in 1780. In 1784 he is elected into the Academie Royale, before leaving for Rome. In Rome he finishes his work the Oath of the Horatii. (Biography.com, 2014) In 1789 he still was a student of arts and president of the non-conformist artist, before a year later he was asked to paint the mayor of Nantes. In that same year, 1790, he participated in Tennis court oath and made a sketch on paper of the gathering. This artistic outing of Tennis court oath was noticed by the Jacobins and David was made the semi-official painter of the Jacobins. (Herbert, 1972) At this point in time he finished multiple works and they were shown to a certain part of the public in several salons. The paintings depicted were Brutus, the Oath of the Horatti and Socrates. In the first few years of the revolution, David did little painting and drawing. But during the reign of the Jacobins, the so-called Terror, David painted the Dead of Marat and LePeletier de Saint-Fargeau on his Deathbed. (Wendt, 2008-2009) Other than his painting activities, he was also a choreographer of different events such like festivals. But he also was the choreographer of the funeral of Marat, whose death he brilliantly painted. (Wendt, 2008-2009). David still painted on commission and in 1791 he was ordered by the Jacobins to paint the Tennis court Oath. Historically speaking, its less accurate as the depiction by Jean-Louis Priereur. Nonetheless, David’s work contributed more to the desired unification. At least to the idea of that desire. The oath-form of painting was very important, it was seen as a renaissance to classical relations where people would join each other in contract. (Starobinski, 1982)

According to David himself, he was not politically engaged in his works, but the Getty Center disagrees. According to them, David made one of the powerful propaganda painting in history. At first for the French revolution and later on for Napoleon Bonaparte. (Getty Centre, 2005) David as a person, was politically engaged and was involved in political games of power. (The Bulfinch Guide to Art History) David started a friendship with Maximilien de Robespierre en Jean-Paul Marat during the French revolution and he took part in the National Convention in 1792 after denouncing the monarchy of France. David was a proud and rather fanatic supporter of the Jacobin regime and agreed with the proposal to execute Louis Capet – the civilian name for the fallen king, Louis XVI. (Pioch, 2002) (Wendt, 2008-2009) The American historian Warren Roberts agrees with what Pioch and Wendt say, he claims that David was very active in the downfall of the bureaucracy of the Ancien Regime, in particular that of the Academie Royal in Paris, where he previously was a member of. In 1793 de Academie Royal fell and the artist had a huge part in it. (Roberts, 1989) A prime example of the politics in the work of David and the Jacobins, can be found in the painting LePeletier de Saint-Fargeau on his Deathbed. According to Donna Hunter this is a very important paining in the Jacobin controlled government of the French Revolution. (Hunter, 1992). Le Peletier was murdered on the night before Louis Capet would be executed and he attained the status of martyrdom in the Jacobin controlled government. On this particular painting, you can see a sword with a few words engraved in it: “Paris/Ga…/Du roi”. This refers to the fact that Paris – as Paris, the city mob – killed Le Peletier. The sword pierces a little piece of paper that has Je vote la mort du tyran on it. This refers to the conviction of Louis XVI, although historically speaking this is inaccurate. This sword has been brought in Jacobin speeches on numerous occasions, where constantly was referred to the sword of terror and virtue, which could mean that this was the sword that was depicted in the painting of David. (Hunter, 1992)

After the fall of the Jacobin movement and the Terror in 1795, the Frenchman became unwanted at the hands of the Directoire. In the period following the fall of Robespierre he and other artists, tried to give art a renewed, significant role in the thoughts and actions of the general public. (Crow, 1985). It was during this period, that David met Napoleon and this would ultimately lead to a new chapter in his career. (Lajet-Burcharth, 1999) He started with making propaganda paintings for Napoleon and did this so well, that he would grow to the the favorite painter of Napoleon. His efforts were rewarded in 1804 when he was awarded the title of First Painter of the Emperor. (Wendt, 2008-2009) (Boime, 1990). Despite his new career path, his public image didn’t improve. He was one of the most controversial people in France and after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the artist was forced to go underground. He worked on interpretations of Greek myths and remained underground till his death in 1825. (Getty Centre, 2005)

The career of David had a few remarkable turns and he worked for different employers who all moved in a different political spectrum. King Louis XVI, the Jacobins and Napoloen were all French, but in ideologies they all had their own perspectives. David also worked for Pope Pius VII, but Lajer-Burcharth explains this to state that the artist needed to survive and therefore took the job of painting for the Vatican – casting his political preferences aside for financial gain. (Lajer-Burcharth, 1999) (Roberts, 1989)

The painting that is of particular interest in this paper, is the Oath of the Horatti. This neoclassical work has been seen as one of the masterpieces of that era. Jacques-Louis David found himself in a transition period at the beginning of his career. The decline of the rococo style was almost complete and there was the introduction of the neoclassicism. David was more intrigued by neoclassicism than he was by classicism, this can be seen in his paintings. (Biography.com, 2014) Neoclassicism was a reaction to the plentiful style which characterises the rococo style. It was over the top, plentiful and did not give the viewer an accurate perception of reality. The reaction that followed on the rococo style was to view art as art when it gives a concrete perception of reality. Where classicism can be seen in a longer period, neoclassicism is focused on the period 1760 – 1840. The renewed interest in the antiquities was noticed in different aspect. One was looking for artefacts from that specific era, which led to many archeological findings. These findings have structured the art and architecture in such a way that a new style developed: Neoclassicism. (Kunstkennis.nl)

The Oath of the Horatii is the prime example of neoclassicism where the interest for the antiquities speaks. The paintings tells the story from that era, it is about the Roman legend telling the story of the war between Rome and Alba Longa. Alba Longa plays a significant role in the history of the Roman Empire. In one of the tales on the foundation of Rome, the father of Rome Romulus is a descendant of the kings of Alba Long and that is of vital importance to understanding the legend of the Horatii. (Beard, 2012) When Rome starts to grow, it finds competition in the form of Alba Longa and according to the myth, Rome and Alba Longa are at war. This war was going to be decided via a direct confrontation between three brothers on the Roman side, the Horatii and three brothers on the side of Abla Longa; the Curatii. (Roth,1994) The famous Roman historian Livius wrote this down in his history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita. The six men were expected to fight for the future of their city. In this fight, the Curatii look confident in winning the battle. The Curatii killed two of the three Horatii brothers and the third one is forced to flee the scene. Things are looking very dark for the third brother called Publius Horatio. However, the Curatii can not keep up Publius Horatio, because the Curatii have been injured in the fight with the Horatii. The last member of the Horatii – who has not been injured – is too smart for this rivals and injures them even more. Supported and cheered on by the Roman public, Publius Horatio finally kills the Curatii. (Roth, 1994) (Livius, 10) Horatio returned to Rome and found his sister Horatia, who was betrothed to one of the Curatii. According to the myth, Horatia screamed as loud as she could, because of sadness and sorrow. She shouted the name of her loved one, after which Horatio stabbed his sister because she ruined the euphoria. While he gave her the fatal stab he spoke the following words: “May this happen to every Roman woman who mourns the enemy.” (Livius, 10) Publius Horatio was convicted for high treason, but was acquitted by the Roman Assembly. (Roth, 1994)

The Oath of the Horatii (1784) was a painting that originally was intended as  a commission painting for king Louis XVI, at that time David stayed at the court of the king. (Wendt, 2008-2009) The story comes from the Roman mythical heritage, but the concept of the oath does not. It is invented by Jacques-Louis David himself. This oath can be recognised in the painting, where the three Horatii brother swear an oath to their father to not return before they defeated the Curatii brothers.

On the left side of the painting you see the three brothers who swear allegiance to Rome, supported by their father. They are prepared to give their life for Rome because of their patriotic feelings for Rome. The way how they stand with their limbs stretched and their muscles tightened, makes them the symbol of the highest values in Rome. The men don’t give any sign of emotion and because of the clarity of their task and the way David portrayed them, de painting is made even more powerful. The men are heroes and their heroic status is clear in this piece of art. (Wendt, 2008-2009) (Roth, 1994) The women however are portrayed on the right side of the painting in the shadow. Contrary to the men, women are portrayed as very emotional and they are mourning whilst their husbands go into battle. The women are emotional because it is about family. One of the women, – named Sabina – is a sister of the Curatii and is married to one of the Horatii. Furthermore, Camila – a sister of the Horatii – is betrothed with one the Curatii. Despite the relationships between the two families and the protests of the women, the father of the Horatii supports their choice to fight against the Alban family. (Claire) On the background in the dark area, you see another woman holding two children. The father is portrayed in the middle of the painting and that has the symbolic mean of the father being between the non-emotional sons and the emotional women. (Wendt, 2008-2009)

The perfection and stability in this painting is suggested by the number three. The number three is relevant in the three groups portrayed in the painting: the men, the women and the father in the middle. Behind every specific group, an arch is painted. Which gives the separation of the three individual groups in this artwork. (Roth, 1994)

To truly understand what is relevant about this story of the Horatii and this painting of David in relation to the French Revolution, it is important to make a distinction between the things that are relevant for this research and what is not. The renaissance of the Antiquity sort of means the same as the downfall of the Ancien Regime. Neoclassicism is connected to reality and the values of the Antiquity, wherein the Ancien Regime is connect to the beauty and plentifulness of the rococo style. That rococo style is something most monarchies could identify with.(Kunstkennis.nl)

The Oath of the Horatii is seen as one of the most symbolic masterpieces of the French Revolution and of patriotism. The ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity of the French Revolution can be partly seen in this particular painting. The ideal of freedom comes forward in the view of fighting for actual freedom. This story about the Horatii tells the story of the threatened freedom of Rome by the neighbouring city of Alba Longa, and in extent the battle of the hegemony of the region. This struggle for power is of great relevance for both the Horatii and the Curatii. (Roberts, 1989)

The second element or ideology of the French Revolution that can be seen in this painting by David, is fraternity. Fraternity in the Oath of the Horatii can be seen in the form of patriotism. It is no coincidence that from fraternity, the political nationalism has found its form. The Horatii in this particular painting and in the story are driven by patriotism and do not let family affairs get in the way of their patriotism. The love for the city – or as symbol of the French Revolution – or the love for the country has the priority. In the case of the French Revolution or the love for France, this points out the love for France and everything should be set aside for that love. (Emulation and Repetition in 19th century art). David makes a very clever decision in his painting. He lets the scene of the Horatii take part in the Roman Republic instead of the Roman Monarchy, which ultimately suggests that he is rather content that the Republic of France has freed itself from the Ancien Regime. (Roth, 1994)

Also, the painting lets us see the ideal of sacrificing. Sacrificing is not meant in the context of the Antiquity where it can mean actually sacrificing a human life, but as to bring a sacrifice. Everything must be sacrificed for the main ideal and in this case, that is the French Revolution. It is about the personal sacrifice for a ideological political situation. The Horatii brothers are willing to sacrifice their lives for the victory of Rome. Eventually, two brother sacrifice themselves for the greater good that is the city of Rome. Publius Horatio fights on and beats the Curatii, he fights for the ideal of the city of Rome. That same reasoning and interpretation can be made in relation with France and the French Revolution. The French people needs to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, according to David. The most important thing is that the ideals of the French Revolution keep existing and that there is no monarchy in France. (Khan Academy)

In conclusion we can state a few things when we look at the art and politics of Jacques-Louis David. David had the luck that the rococo style went down and that he rose to the occassion during the transformation to neoclassicism, wherein he is considered one of the founding fathers. (Lajer-Burcharth, 1999) That neoclassical style wherein there is a lot of appreciation and attention for the Antiquity, gets its deep symbolism from the Antiquity and that is used by David for the French Revolution. Just as portrayed above, it is about the outings of the ideals of the French Revolution in the Oath of Horatii, but also in the composition of the painting. In neoclassicism there is a lot of attention for two specific groups – something that can also be seen in the Antiquity. In this painting there is a clear distinction between two groups: the men and the women, we leave the father-figure out of the equation. Neoclassicism and the artist Jacques-Louis David empower each other.

You cannot speak about the work of Jacques-Louis David without mentioning his politics. You can give the argument that David needed to think of his financial situation and therefore was forced to work for different employers from different political and religious backgrounds. However, his work always kept bringing that particular political vision of David. Especially during the times of the French Revolution, David was a prominent figure and that reflects in his work. There is a difference between his work. In LePeletier de Saint-Fargeau on his deathbed one can spot a clear message of propaganda and in this work there are references to the Jacobin regime. It is not so much about the message, but how one feels when perceiving the painting. (Hunter, 1992)

The message of the Oath of the Horatii is symbolic. The neoclassical character of the myth of the war between Rome and Alba Longa leads to a symbolism that can be recognised in the French Revolution as well. The compositions, the lines and the techniques do make the story on canvas more clear and more simple. The sharpness of this painting makes the contrast between men and women on the canvas even more clear. The symbolic value of the painting is purely ideological. There is no emulation or imitation of the reality of the French Revolution. In my opinion this ideological perception portrays the ideals of the French Revolution correct and not the reality or problems, such as portrayed in the painting LePeletier de Saint-Fargeau on his deathbed.

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  1. oktober 26, 2017 / 5:17 pm

    This was incredibly interesting Marc, really liked the style of writing on this too – learned a lot! – Tasha

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