frontline 17.

Jacques-Louis David, the Robespierre of the brush.

Kenny McEwan looks at an artist who made revolution as well as painting it.

During the counter-reformation the Catholic Church reaffirmed its doctrine of depicting the lives of the saints and biblical events in iconic form. To achieve this they invited the foremost artists and painters to Italy and in particular to Rome to participate in this pursuit.

Out of this came a new art form known as Baroque, a flamboyant, exuberant form it often depicted large group scenes of a biblical or allegorical nature. In France this style was lighted with more grace and intimacy to form Rococo which eventually spread round Europe.

It was into this French tradition that the young Jacques-Louis David was sent for training as an artist under the great French master Boucher. Soon, however, Boucher realised that David had more of an eye and hand for the new neo-classical style that was appearing in Europe.

Another idea was also emerging in Europe, one that found its voice in the American Revolution and by people like Thomas Paine that another world was possible, one free of tyranny and oppression by feudal masters who lived in luxury and privilege whilst others lived in squalor and poverty. The young David would promote and defend these ideas just as passionately as he would promote and defend the new artistic style.

Neoclassicism, a return to the Greek and Roman model of order, clarity and reason appealed to the ideals of the age of enlightenment and would find a home in revolutionary France particularly its civic values, they also found a home in David’s early works. Paintings like the “Oath of the Horatii “ (1784) and “The Death of Socrates” (1789) not only expounded the new classical style, strong contours, sober colouring and clear lighting but also illustrated the new views of stoicism, courage and morality. In particular the “Death of Socrates” with its depiction of Socrates continuing to teach after drinking hemlock, surrounded by his ‘disciples’, struck a cord among those desiring change. Socrates taught that all knowledge came through dialogue and detailed questioning as well as disregarding uncritical acceptance of superior knowledge. He was sentenced to death for the supposed crime of corruption of youth, in reality it was for opposing tyranny and the method of execution was to drink hemlock.

Artistically these paintings were lauded in France as representing a new and powerful artistic style. Wealthy Parisians copied the Roman fashion and bought Roman and Greek furnishings, with David himself being seen as an artistic and cultural hero.

Like many artists of his time he found work as a painter for Louis XVI and his court, however, as the drive for a change in French society quickened pace David’s republican ideals found an outlet.

France in the late 17ch was under the absolute rule of Louis XVI, head of a feudal system that was splitting at the seams, almost bankrupt, with all the tax burden on the poor the King needed financial stability. With the nobility and church the largest landowners in France exempt from any financial burden Louis had his work cut out to try and change the situation. With pressure from all sides Louis agreed to let the Estates General meet to try and salvage something from the situation. France at this time had three estates the Noble’s the Clergy and the ‘common people’ (Third Estate) as each estate had an equal delegation the Third Estate was always out voted by the other two, however, under pressures from the Third Estate and the continued unrest in the country, Louis doubled the Third Estates delegation so it equalled the other two. The Third Estate, unhappy at meeting separately, invited the others to meet in joint sessions, they refused though the poorer parish clergy now tended to side with the Third Estate and joined the call to set up a National Assembly. On the 20th of June 1789 having been locked out of their usual room, they met in the Tennis Court, here one of the defining moments of the French Revolution occurred, an oath was taken to refuse to disperse until a new constitution was written. Among the delegates at this event was David who captured the occasion on canvass in “The Tennis Court Oath” (1791).

As revolution spread through out France sparked off by the storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July, David became more and more involved in the political maelstrom that was engulfing the country, and joined the Jacobins. Through his friendship with the revolutionary leaders Robespierre and Marat, David organised many public events and political rallies. He raised obelisks in the provinces, struck medals depicting key events of the revolution and organised huge funeral processions for the fallen heroes of the revolution, with one of the most important events being the transfer of the body of Voltaire to the Pantheon in Paris. David also oversaw as a member of the Commune des Arts the overhauling of the French artistic establishment. He established an inventory of all national treasures, founded France’s Museums and played a prominent role in transforming the Louvre from a royal palace to a national museum.

Eventually in 1792 he was elected to the National Assembly as a Jacobin depute. Whilst this period represents a high point in the revolutionary struggle in France the rest of feudal Europe was reacting to it with a mixture of fear and loathing. This fear was not unfounded as across Europe all eyes were on France with support groups being wide spread. Even in Britain there were pro-Jacobin societies with trees of liberty being set up everywhere, in Scotland Burns even purchased cannons to send to the revolutionaries.

This fear reached fever point in 1793 with the death of Louis XVI, David being one of the depute who voted for it.

With the Revolution eventually surrounded by enemies both foreign and homegrown it entered a phase called the ‘Terror’ by bourgeois historians. In fact whilst undoubtedly a violent period the revolution was fighting for its life and set up the committee for public safety to try and defend the revolution. It is worth noting that more people died in one night on the aftermath of the Paris Commune 1871, than in the whole of the Terror, though most historians lose little sleep over that event.

It was during these tumultuous times that David painted one of his most famous paintings “The Death of Marat” (1793). Marat was killed whilst in his bath by the royalist Charlotte Corday, called ‘the Pieta of the Revolution’1 it depicts in a realistic, though Christ like way, the dead Marat in his bath holding the introduction that Corday had used to gain admission to see Marat, on the side of the tub David wrote ‘A Marat’ (to Marat). This is considered one of David’s masterpieces. Other paintings of fallen martyrs included “The Death of Lepeletier de Saint Fargeou” (1793) now destroyed, a depute and leading scientist killed by royalists in the Assembly after the vote to execute the King. Another “The Death of Bara” (1794) depicts a thirteen year old who was shot by royalists and who was interred in the Pantheon on the instructions of Robespierre. These paintings represented a new form for David as he moved from pure classicism to a more realist form.

Unfortunately, events in France were now moving away from the Jacobins culmination in the Thermidorian reaction2 which swept away the revolutionary old guard and led to the execution of Robespierre and the arrest of David. Thanks to a timely intervention of his ex-wife, David was released from prison. His “Intervention of the Sabine Women” (1794-9) is said to have been inspired by this event. This painting came to the attention of Napoleon who made him his official painter. Napoleon, despite sweeping away most of the progressive measures put in place by the Jacobins and dispersing the revolutionary sans–culottes was seen by many as still embodying the ideals of the revolution, particularly as he set off to rid Europe of its old feudal masters. David now became an ardent supporter of Napoleon, and depicted him in a series of heroic situations the most famous being his “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” (1800) again combining classicism with realism Napoleon is depicted on his rearing horse the wind blowing his clock and the horses mane dramatically as Napoleon points the way froward. Not only is this a well-executed painting it is also a powerful propaganda image for Napoleon in the same way as “Death of Marat” was for the revolution.

Unfortunately, David’s admiration for Napoleon blinded him to his real nature and he forgot his revolutionary background. Whilst others like Beethoven, who had written his third symphony ‘Eroica’ in honour of Napoleon, reacted in disgust at him being crowned emperor of France, David painted the Coronation. Artistically it is a magnificent painting; massive in size it captures the pomp and ceremony wonderfully, the size allowing David to depict in full all the participants.

David continued to paint Napoleon until his downfall, when he was exiled to Brussels were he continued to paint mostly portraits, and teach. Among his pupils were Grarnet, Gros, and Ingress. Whilst David may have lost his early revolutionary zeal and subsequently supported the usurper Napoleon he never the less made a massive contribution to France’s artistic heritage. Indeed there is a direct artistic line that runs from David to modern times, with Delacroix’ “ Liberty Leading the People” (1830) one of the most famous revolutionary images in the world owing more than a passing nod to David in both an artistic and political sense.


  1. Pieta, death of Christ scene usually with Virgin Mary.
  2. The French during the period of the revolution created a new calendar, Thermidor was Jul 19 – Aug 17. The Thermidorian reaction, the overthrow of the progressive aims of the revolution occurred at this time.